The X Factor of the Best Employees


Here are some of those special traits that make a team member stand out.

You’ve likely encountered this in your career: a job candidate or employee who has a special something that makes them stand out. It’s not a technical skill or something on their CV, but an X factor that makes them an extraordinary team member.

These are the kinds of professionals we all want in our organisations. But what, exactly, makes them so outstanding?

Across surveys of HR professionals and business leaders, a few key traits emerge as signs that an employee may be exceptional. These aren’t characteristics that necessarily show up in a job description or performance review, but they nevertheless can help you identify someone who could provide an outsize contribution to your team and company.

Here are some traits to look for when you want a star player on your team:

Outstanding professionals ask questions, even when others don’t. They understand the importance of clear communication and value what their team members have to say. They also have the confidence to admit when they need more information and are wise enough to seek input from others.

Exceptional employees are curious. They want to know how the business works outside of their areas of responsibility. They’re willing to take on new projects and enjoy exploring novel ideas and fresh approaches. The status quo isn’t good enough; they are always looking for something better.

Extraordinary team members tend to think and act differently. They tend not to be cut from the same mould as the typical employee. Such employees bring unique insights and perspectives, and push their colleagues to step outside the norm and embrace more creative ways of thinking.

Remarkable employees generously praise and affirm others. They know how important it is to recognize the contributions of others--especially publicly. They have an innate desire to encourage and build up co-workers and partners, and to celebrate team success. This positivity, business experts have found, can strengthen teams and support the performance of the entire organisation.

Excellent professionals are motivated by more than money or success. It’s important to give your employees the compensation they deserve, but the best ones are driven by something deeper than a big pay check. They often have something to prove or a greater purpose outside of themselves, which pushes them to work hard and maintain high standards in all they do.

Exceptional employees are resilient and never stop learning. Social scientists have found that one of the most consistent measures of success is grit—the determination to keep working toward goals over time. These are the team members who don’t give up and see mistakes and failure as learning opportunities.

The next time you have the opportunity to interview a job candidate, we recommend asking questions that could uncover these traits. Try to discover their attitude toward the status quo, toward learning, toward failures and mistakes, and toward colleagues. Find out what drives them and keeps them going through challenges. If you’re fortunate, you may find that you have a star player in the making.

And if you already have someone on your team with these traits, we hope you’ll do what you can to help them shine, giving them the space to express their unique strengths for the good of your team and organisation.