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Smell Out a Toxic Environment... Before You Land in One

May 11, 2018

You've seen this. Maybe you've lived it. You interview for a job, and the team and company seem great. They have great answers to all your questions, seem to respect each other, and share values consistent with your own. You accept the offer, but you're not there long before you start to see cracks in the facade. There's in fighting, and team members don't trust each other. Before long, you realize: "Oh NO! I've landed on a toxic team!"

A while back, a colleague who had landed up in exactly this situation asked me how they might go about figuring out what a team really looks like behind the picture they paint in interviews. It's a great question, with a simple answer: learn all the techniques that employers use to dig underneath your prepared answers, and use them to learn about them.

Follow this simple three step process to find a team where you will thrive:

  1. Identify what's really important to you

  2. Use behavioral interviewing techniques

  3. Listen to not just what interviews say, but how they say it

1. What's really important to you?

First, you're going to need to hone in on what questions you need answered. What makes a great team for you? Is it a team where individuals can work extra hard and get plenty of public recognition? Is it a team where the group is really cohesive and acts in harmony? Is it having a manager who is really effective at managing the politics and allowing the team to focus?


Once you have a list of the values and characteristics that make a team great, ruthlessly prioritize them. Select up to three non-negotiables, up to five really important characteristics, and everything else is nice-to-have. This is the most important step, since this is where you define success.

Here's a sample profile:

  • Non-negotiables: work/life balance, team members have each other's back's, and a strong manager who supports team member's development

  • Really important: team members pitch in when the going gets tough, strong senior leadership, team members have strong skills, team is diverse

  • Nice-to-have: Team members socialize outside work, recognition for individual achievement

2. Use behavioral interviewing techniques

When a potential employer wants to know how well you manage relationships with senior leaders, they don't ask you "how do you do with senior leaders?" Instead, they'll ask situational questions, like, "Tell us about a time where you had to give bad news to a senior leader." Similarly, you don't have to ask, "does the team spend time together even if they don't have to?" Rather, you could ask, "when is the last time the team went to lunch together," or, "can you tell me about the last time the team celebrated a success together?"


 The trick here is to really understand your non-negotiables, and seek questions which will have specific answers that give you insight into what is really happening. So, if you want a team with strong psychological safety, you could ask "when is the last time the team failed, and can you tell me how you handled it?" Or if you are concerned about team stability, you can ask who has left the team in the past few months, and where they have gone.


When it comes to great answers to behavioral questions, the devil is in the details. If your interviewer offers general responses or platitudes, dig for detail! Notice the difference in the answers to this question about turnover, "how many people have left the team recently, and why did they leave."

  • "Well, we've actually had a lot of turnover recently. The scrum master left, because he got a full time position which is really what he wanted. Our lead software engineer was promoted to architect. And about five months ago, one of our QA leads decided to return to Brazil for family reasons. That's a lot for us, but we have managed to keep things stable."

  • "We haven't had a lot of turnover."

The first answer included more turnover, but it was really specific, and some of the information could be verified with a bit of digging. The second answer avoided an actual answer, and left out all detail. This would be an excellent place to dig for detail.


3. How they say it


Think about how you have talked about past colleagues. Here's how I think of people:

  • Yes, Mary, she was a great hire, she's still in the role and doing a great job.

  • Scott was so meticulous and caught every mistake!

  • Yeah, I worked with Bob.

We love talking about the people we loved working with. Listen for the way people talk about their teammates. Listen for emotion and tone in their voices, that tell about how they feel about their colleagues, and listen for the specific details that say, "I really mean it!"


Finally, there is no guaranteed way to ensure you'll never join a troubled team. Or, that soon after you join a team, circumstances will change--such as the departure of a key player--that will change the environment. but in the end, you found this job, and you could find another. So do your best--and don't freak out--marvelous teams are out there!

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