There are two types of employees: those who thrive in a team environment, and those who would rather work alone. Though these two groups can work together cohesively when they need to, they typically accomplish much more when allowed to do things their own way.
In most business environments, the independent-minded person who works better alone has good reason for doing so. Usually, those reasons relate to his or her personality type—the 'lone wolf' is typically introverted, self-motivated, and is extremely focused on completing her own tasks. Using the four-letter typology developed by Isabel Briggs Myers, there's a strong chance that your lone wolf employee will test as an INTJ, INTP, ISTJ or ISTP, although other types may also have difficulty working in teams.
Managing a lone wolf employee can be incredibly frustrating; the entire team's performance may suffer when one person refuses to chip in. It's tempting to assume that, in order to manage a lone wolf correctly, you should encourage them to think more about the team. That's probably the wrong approach. Here are seven things you should not do with a coworker who isn't a team player, and some approaches you might try instead.
#1: You Shouldn't Assume It's a Bad Thing
To the credit of lone wolves, research suggests that employees who do not work well on teams often devote greater energy to their work tasks than team players, since they are not wasting energy on interpersonal interactions with others on the team. These employees tend to be highly productive when left alone to prosper on the job. They contribute to their organizations through high levels of task completion, self-confidence and drive.
It's human nature to assume that someone who separates themselves from the group is a slacker or is less motivated towards the team's goals. But perhaps the person is a major production center or someone who accepts complete accountability for their (quality) decisions. Don't jump to conclusions that being a lone wolf is a bad thing.
#2: You Shouldn't Pass Them Over For Opportunities
When a management team meets to discuss a new business opportunity, the conversation might go something like this:
Vice president: "So, we have a new campaign coming up for Acme Corporation. I don't have the details yet, but it's going to involve crunching some pretty complex data. Who should head up this project?"
First manager: "I'd recommend Ashley. She knocked it out of the park with that last Power Point presentation and really wowed the client."
Second manager: "How about Christopher? I know he's a bit of a loner, but he is seriously good at crunching the numbers and has a track record for clearing up messy data. He can definitely do this."
Vice president: "I like Christopher, but this is a high-profile project. The client's going to want regular meetings, and I'd feel more comfortable if it were handled by someone who's open to collaboration. Let's go with Ashley."
This conversation is fictional, but it shows how lone wolves are really viewed by upper management and miss out on crucial opportunities. Not only did the VP decline Christopher the opportunity, she also gave the message that important projects do not go to lone wolf employees—and this decision was made before the project details were known.
Just because the lone wolf prefers working alone, does not mean that he or she is unable to lead others and collaborate with clients. Beware the ever-growing emphasis placed on teamwork. Don't confuse work preferences with work capabilities.
#3: You Shouldn't Micromanage
Lone wolves are independent spirits who get the best results when they are left to their own devices. Smothering these employees by constantly looking over their shoulder and intervening in their day-to-day activities is the worst thing you can do. It signals that you don't trust the employee despite their advanced understanding of the task and record for achieving project goals.
Check in periodically and do ask questions if you're really not sure what the lone wolf is doing. Otherwise, give them the space to do the work. You should find that they do it rather well.
#4: You Shouldn't Force Them to Collaborate
Collaboration is everywhere these days and the truth is, it is often overdone. Your lone wolf employees will not be persuaded if the goal of collaboration is collaboration itself. Task-oriented individuals may grow resentful if they are forced to go to meetings, attend task forces, and make decisions by committee, when the collaboration offers no real value.
Managers need to scrutinize their projects and say no to wasteful collaboration. Be picky and disciplined to prune unnecessary teamwork, and collaborate only when collaboration will give a return on investment. When a lone wolf employee sees a compelling benefit, they are usually much more willing to get behind the team.
#5: You Shouldn't Forget About Everybody Else
Even if your lone wolf employee is knocking her work out of the park, there's a risk that the group's performance will suffer unless all the team members—including the loners—are pulling in the same direction. For this reason, it's a good idea to focus on the larger team picture when deciding how to manage your lone wolf employee. How does everyone feel about the lone wolf's autonomous behavior? Does it compromise group effectiveness? Would performance be impacted if you scheduled fewer all-hands meetings or isolated other team members from the lone wolf's weak spots?
Start with a 360 degree appraisal to gain insight into the wider team perspective. Group members can agree to implement strategies that will help lone wolves become more confident about working with others—or they may think the lone wolf is an asset just the way they are.
#6: You Shouldn't Fail to Nurture Constructive Group Skills
In any business setting, getting along with others is a minimum job requirement. Lone wolves do not have to like group work, but they must develop skills they can use in situations when collaboration is unavoidable.
As a leader, it's your job to provide support for developing the necessary people skills: offer training, assign a mentor, arrange coaching, or change the incentive systems so it rewards group as well as individual performance. Above all, show appreciation for the loner who is out of his or her comfort zone. Your appreciation will encourage more sharing and reduce the barriers to collaboration.
#7: You Shouldn't Gloss Over Serious Issues
Sometimes, it is acceptable to blame someone for the negative consequences of their lone wolf behavior. Managers can—and must—draw a line between unacceptable, policy-breaking behavior and the behavior you'd naturally get when an independent-minded employee is given the freedom and the flexibility to do things their own way.
Recently, Starbucks hit national headlines when an employee typed "Diabetes here I come" on a customer's drink label. Starbucks was quick to point out that the company did not condone such behavior, and quickly issued a statement that spoke to a culture of collective responsibility:
"We strive to provide an inclusive and positive experience for our customers, and we're disappointed to learn of this incident We are working directly with the customer to apologize for his experience, and with our partners (employees) to ensure this does not happen again."
If the lone wolf shows no inclination to co-operate with the company's code of conduct, you may not have any other choice but to follow disciplinary procedures and fire them.
Principles to Remember
To help loners thrive, leaders must manage them differently. First, get out of the mindset that lone wolves are a bad thing. Make sure they are given the same opportunities as your team players, and avoid micromanaging since this strategy is sure to backfire. Take the pulse of the team. If you need to bring a loner into the fold, provide assistance for them to do that. Part of being a good leader is to recognize the environment that's going to let each person give their best efforts, and then take action in order to create harmony amongst all the individuals within the team.