Answering "Tell me about a time when..." for Collaboration Skills
Learn how to answer behavioral questions on collaboration, including communication and teamwork, for front end / web developers / software engineers. Refer to sample answers.
As mentioned in our behavioral interview preparation overview, collaboration is one of the 8 main categories of questions to prepare for.
Collaboration questions are probably the most common behavioral questions asked in front end behavioral interviews, as they encompass a large number of related traits which can be grouped for ease of story/project preparation.
In this guide, you will learn how to tackle them:
- Evaluation criteria in detail
- Abstracting possible questions into common themes
- Suggested answer framework
- An example of a good sample story
- Possible nature of follow-up questions
- Sample questions and answers
When rating candidates under this category, interviewers are often looking at the following criteria:
- Handling disagreements
- Working as a team
- Working with diverse personalities and skills
- Conveying complex ideas simply
- Giving constructive feedback
- Active listening
As mentioned in our behavioral interview preparation overview, it is impractical to prepare answers specifically for every behavioral question out there. However, by batching specific questions into similar themes and preparing stories that cover a large number of question requirements, we can reduce the number of stories to prepare to around 3-5 stories.
Collaboration is such a theme which can group sub-requirements like communication, team work, adaptability and coachability. For each sub-requirement, we have summarized the common questions and also abstracted out the traits that interviewers are looking out for across these questions:
- Can you describe a time when you had to effectively communicate technical information to a non-technical audience and how you approached it?
- Can you describe a time when you had to adapt your communication style to effectively communicate with someone who had a different background or perspective?
- Can you give an example of a time when you had to communicate important information under time pressure or in a high-stress situation?
- How do you ensure that your message is understood and well-received by your audience?
- Convey complex ideas simply
- Active listening
- Can you describe a past project where you had to work with a difficult stakeholder or teammate and how you dealt with it?
- Can you tell me about a time when you had to give constructive feedback to a team member or colleague?
- How do you approach working with team mates who are not meeting their deadlines or responsibilities?
- Can you provide an example when you had to work with a team where there were disagreements between members?
- How do you handle working on a team with people who have different skill sets and personalities?
- Can you give an example of a time when you had to adapt to a team member's working style in order to complete a project successfully?
- How do you ensure that all team members are heard and their ideas are considered in group discussions?
- Can you give an example of a time when you had to work on a team project and had to compromise with others to reach a solution?
- Can you describe a time when you had to collaborate with people from different departments or organizations to complete a project?
- Working as a team
- Working with diverse working styles, skills and personalities
- Handling disagreements (others and own)
- Giving constructive feedback
As always, the STAR format is the simplest and most effective framework that we recommend to structure your story.
Based on the abstraction above, we can see that interviewers are looking for specific traits for every sub-requirement. We have created a quick cheatsheet for suggested approaches to exhibit these desired traits.
Ideally, you should select stories that can cover as much of the below traits as possible, so that you don't have to remember too many stories.
- First understand your audience's level of knowledge. Put yourself in their shoes, explain in their language.
- Understand what they need to know (and want to know) and prioritize the key takeaways.
- Only dive deeper where appropriate for important details.
- Break down the idea into component parts.
- Use visual aids, such as diagrams or charts.
- Give examples.
Note: For communication, traits like conveying complex ideas simply and active listening may be evaluated through your actual interview performance instead - e.g. do you interrupt the interviewer, do you listen and understand their question correctly, do you communicate your thought process in an easy to digest manner.
- Focus on understanding rather than replying.
- Withhold judgment until the person is done talking.
- Use non-verbal cues to show that you are engaged.
- Summarize and repeat back in your own words.
- Ask clarifying questions.
- Never interrupt.
- Set clear goals and ensure that everyone understands them. Proactively seek alignment and perspectives.
- Assign and communicate roles and responsibilities. Collaborate and delegate.
- Set up regular progress check-ins and address blockers. Always include the appropriate stakeholders and share timely information with them.
- Measure impact and recognize achievements.
- Openly recognize unique perspectives and skills that each team member can bring to the table.
- Encourage open and honest communication, and active listening.
- Create a welcoming and supportive environment even to differences in opinions. Use them as opportunities to grow.
- Proactively include a range of perspectives and voices in decision-making.
- Provide equal opportunities to every team member, including access to channels, resources and support.
- Facilitate open and productive communication between relevant parties.
- Frame conflict as a way to enhance teamwork and improve current solutions.
- Clarify the source of conflict (and whether there actually is conflict)
- Give each party equal time to air out their views and concerns without judgment (assume positive intent). Set ground rules if needed to cultivate active listening and understanding. Pivot conversation away from emotions and towards solutions. Tactfully address unproductive dialogue.
- Summarize and validate the standpoint from each party, reflecting back at them.
- Identifying underlying sources of conflict between the standpoints.
- Brainstorm and run through the options available to best meet common goals. (Show skill and logic in finding common ground). Use data and facts to drive resolution with others, weighing pros and cons, instead of just relying on opinions.
- Agree on the best solution and determine each party's responsibilities. Bring in relevant parties to support resolutions.
- Give the feedback in private.
- Remind them of what you already appreciate of them.
- Describe specific behaviors that were directly observed (not inferred) and can be changed, e.g. "did not study the documentation" versus "not prepared".
- Describe the impact of said behaviors.
- Point it out as an opportunity for growth rather than a fault.
- Offer solutions.
Although there seem to be a large number of required traits, you can cover 90% of them with a very common situation that occurs in engineering teams:
- You had to work within a cross-functional team (e.g. with business stakeholders or product managers or designers) on a high pressure situation, where priorities and requirements were changing rapidly.
- There's a conflict of interest between business/design and engineering, such as business/design pushing (demanding) for tighter deadlines, while from engineering perspective rushing for those deadlines will result in large tech debt.
- You had to provide constructive feedback to business/design on the problem.
- In so doing, you needed to convey technical concepts to the non-technical audience.
- Further, you solicited feedback from them to understand how engineering could collaborate better to avoid this problem again. In so doing, you regularly ran through the list of demands or requirements with them to see if any could be dropped for faster engineering delivery. Additionally, you catered for their need on timeline accountability by providing regular updates.
Add in specific details according to your situation.
- In my current job as front end engineer in a startup, I had to lead development on a highly urgent marketing project, working cross functionally with marketing and design.
- At some point, marketing had expected the feature to ship within the next week, but there was a significant roadblock from engineering due to dependencies on a partner API team whose deliverables were delayed due to recent departures of two senior members.
- The situation had become heated as marketing did not understand the roadblocks engineering had faced.
- I had to resolve the misunderstanding to ensure smooth working relationship between both teams.
- In order to do so, I spoke to marketing privately and gave them time to clearly explain the urgency and concerns or misconceptions marketing might have towards engineering.
- I then explained the role of the partner teams, focusing specifically on their impact on the feature as opposed to complex technical information.
- In so doing, we were able to brainstorm different ways we could ship the feature even without the external dependencies.
- In parallel, I also spoke to the partner team's manager on the importance of the project to the company and the possibility of reprioritizing their work to help unblock us.
- Apart from that, I also solicited feedback on how engineering could better collaborate with marketing to avoid such misunderstandings in future.
- Due to the tight collaboration between engineering and marketing, we were able to ship the feature in a timely manner.
- As marketing prioritized timelines and accountability, we started providing regular updates and discussed alternatives for every potential blocker.
- With this, every feature was successfully and smoothly delivered there after.
As alluded to in our behavioral interview preparation overview, interviewers are encouraged to rely more on follow-up questions to really understand the candidate's thought process and motivations, which typically fall under these categories:
- Why do you think you did (insert action)?
- Why did you not do (insert action)?
- How would you do things differently in hindsight?
For questions on collaboration, interviewers will most likely probe for questions to help them understand a bit more about:
- Understanding if and why certain stakeholders were involved or not involved
- Which stakeholders were involved in the discussion, and why?
- Why were certain stakeholders like (insert stakeholder) excluded from the group?
- Understanding group dynamics and how it affected the strategy to handle the group
- Which personalities were present in the group and how did it affect dynamics? Did this understanding affect your strategy to navigate group discussions?
- Understanding the candidate's mindset to conflict
- How do you think conflicts like this affect the working environment? Would you prefer to avoid them?
- Understanding how the resolution was derived; did the candidate merely defer to others as opposed to relying on facts and data?
- Were there any data and information which were leveraged in making the decision?
- Was there an analysis of each solution's pros and cons?
The sample story above already answers most (12) of the example questions above. Questions which require slight modifications are covered below. If you haven't already, do review our tips on your interview disposition to increase your chances of setting a good impression.
You could answer the question with a slight modification of the sample story, focused on the explanation of the technical information:
To ensure that my message is well understood, after explaining, I will provide a few examples to illustrate my points and also ask my audience a few questions to confirm their understanding. In a project I did a few months ago, I had to explain to the business team why and how an urgent feature had been delayed by external team API delays. To do so, I focused on the key takeaways that business needed — which was how the feature was impacted by such a delay, and utilized visual aids as well as used simple and clear language. I also gave examples while asking questions to ascertain their understanding of my explanation. This allowed the business team to understand the dependency well enough to brainstorm ways to deliver the feature even without the dependencies.
Once it is clear that their behaviors may constitute a concerning pattern, I would let them know in a timely manner. For instance, I had a teammate on a project who had missed on bug fix timelines regularly, and once it happened a number of times, I scheduled a private meeting with him to talk to them about it. I focused on framing the conversation as a growth opportunity for him on top of what is already appreciated about them, which was his knowledge and mentorship as a senior developer. Instead of describing a general behavior such as "being late", I mentioned the specific tickets that were missed and the impact that had occurred from missing them, as well as its effect on the morale of the team. I then offered a few solutions, such as enacting a new reminder bot within the channel for tickets that were due soon. He was able to understand where I was coming from and our team was able to meet our deadlines much better after that.