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How to recruit the best team player: lessons from the Navy SEALs

The Navy SEALs are one of the highest-performing organisations on the planet. They are known for their gruelling selection process, which is considered to be the toughest in the world. This process involves six months of intensive BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition) training - a physical, mental and emotional test that only one out of every five candidates complete.

While you may assume that successful candidates are the strongest, toughest or smartest in the group, this isn’t the case. Instead, those who make it into this elite organisation consistently demonstrate their ability to work as a team. This is critical as teams must be able to rely on each other and collaborate under extreme conditions to accomplish any mission.

A similar principle applies in the business world. To be successful, companies need collaborative, cross-functional teams that ensure the organisation remains agile, resilient and future-fit.

So why don’t we go through the same rigorous selection process when building our teams?

We obviously can’t replicate the SEALs’ selection process in the corporate world. However, there are certain principles from this specialist operation that can be applied to help companies recruit the best team player for the job. Consider some of the following:


To win on the battlefield, SEALs must believe in and feel deeply connected to their mission. United behind one purpose, team members are required to put their egos aside and place absolute trust in one another. Without this, teams cannot work together or align their behaviour and activities to overcome obstacles.

Similarly, to be a top team player, individuals must believe in what the organisation is trying to achieve and feel connected to its core values. This requires a clear understanding of how values translate into behaviours.

If not already in place, create a ‘behavioural blueprint’ that defines how employees need to ‘Show Up’ in terms of living the values. This blueprint can be used by HR to develop behaviour-focused questions that will help determine a candidates’ alignment with your core values.


To understand why so few make it into the SEALs, a leading psychologist conducted a rigorous assessment of the candidates. The study concluded that the last men standing all had GRIT: the courage, passion and perseverance to overcome challenges.

In the workplace, GRIT shows up in an employee’s passion for the company and its vision. It’s evident in their ability to rebound quickly after setbacks and control their emotions. When “gritty” individuals come together it builds team stamina and a commitment to succeed, even in the face of failure, change and uncertainty.

While it’s difficult to assess GRIT in an interview, there are tell-tale signs such as how the candidate maintains focus and interest in long-term projects or is able to demonstrate instances where they achieved difficult tasks with proficiency. Consider also asking them about their approach to managing stress and adversity.


SEALs never consider their training complete. They work constantly to retain and grow their skills and abilities as individuals and teams. Regular feedback loops, where rank and tenure are left at the door, form the cornerstone of their learning and continuous improvement culture.

This mindset of learning, growth and improvement is critical in business. It enables employees to overcome challenges and reframe obstacles as opportunities. When a team is open to feedback and willing to learn from one another, they will handle change with confidence, agility and innovation.

When searching for new team talent, test this quality by adding a few questions on how a person developed in a special situation or recovered from a setback. This could include questions such as who helped them grow in their career and how, or how did they create learning experiences for themselves in their last job?


In the words of CS Lewis, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Humility has nothing to do with meekness, rather it comes from a high level of self-awareness. Imagine the danger a combat team would face if an officer is unable to keep their competitive drive in check or believes that they know better than the rest.

Humility doesn’t only have significance on the battlefield. In the past decade, psychologists have established fascinating links between humility and team performance. It is vital in fostering collaboration because it involves the ability to recognise our shortcomings, learn, appreciate the contributions of our team members and seek to add value to others.

Hiring for humility means looking for “emotional intelligence”, which includes certain traits such as honesty, curiosity, the ability to sympathise and a sense of humour. When appointing a new team member, pay attention to these humility indicators. If you’d like a direct question, try asking about one of their proudest accomplishments and how they achieved it? Or simply ask them when last they laughed at themselves.


The concept of total team accountability is a core tenant of the Navy SEALs – encapsulated in their saying “All in, all the time”. SEALs are taught to hold themselves and their teammates to the highest performance standards from day one.

Similarly, great team players understand that it takes discipline to remain focused on their goals without becoming distracted by daily pressures. For teams to execute tasks effectively with little oversight, they need to be comfortable with taking ownership of their actions, admitting their limitations and accepting feedback.

Try asking a job candidate to describe a situation where they took responsibility for a mistake or how they hold their colleagues accountable. The answers to these questions should help you gain a measure of their accountability.

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About the author: Hennie Brittz, Co-founder and Director at GameChangers

Hennie has spent 13 years in business and consulting, conceptualising, designing and implementing large-scale performance improvement processes. With a passion for performance, he also heads up the Marketing and Technology department at 2Collaborate, a Management Consultancy that creates value for businesses and their people by focusing, aligning and unleashing their potential for high-performance.

Get to know more about Hennie on LinkedIn

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