Teams of Lone Wolves

I first started conceiving of misfits and misfit teams when I began to reflect on my own employment process. As an unusual, "over"-sensitive and intelligent kid with no siblings, I often balked at oversimplified directions, experienced a bruised ego when receiving criticism, and struggled with how to participate in team or group environments. By the time I entered the workforce, I had developed a complex web of insecurities and related defenses designed to protect against the embarrassment of making public mistakes, compensating with my intelligence. It was in my first management position, which happened at about the same time I was engaging in lot of personal development work, that I really saw the impact. 

I had taken on a task predicated on the effective function of my staff—the expansion of a small franchise of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, the junk removal service. I was accountable for much of the staff selection process, hours, invoice management and the like. I was convinced that if we just tried harder, or had better systems, or the staff were just a bit more enthusiastic, that we could overcome serious deficiencies in our marketing plan (such as errors in overestimating the value of a junk removal service on the east side of Portland, Oregon, a town priding itself on its DIY nature, low waste production and thriftiness). I was dealt a major blow when we simply ran out of cash to keep staffing our business as we had, and I was confronted with the task of laying off some of our staff. 

It was in doing so that I realized my adaptations—chief among them, emotional intelligence and charisma, using technology tools to save money and time, and an above-average work ethic—were insufficient to have a team be effective. To truly share work and responsibility required being vulnerable, trusting people, making mistakes and being accountable to tangible results to tell me if my improvisations in the face of daunting odds were effective. Innovation teams face this challenge all the time. Oftentimes, brilliant staff also don't fit well with others, who are threatened by their intelligence or turned off by boredom which often looks like arrogance. On the merit of their work, they are often promoted throughout the organization anyway, but usually cannot progress to the management level, and at some point are shunted into the "innovation team" or "creative team"—cynically, a catchall for 'smart people who might save us but whom we can't work with easily.' There, all the lone wolves—animals who are at least to some degree social—are thrown together and expected to participate with each other to support or save a company which has been at best a tolerable place to work by reversing the very adaptations they made to survive in the hostile workplace. 

You can imagine their first day being a bit like a first day at Harvard or MIT: suddenly, you're not the smartest kid in your class any more, and you are expected to no just play nice but deeply collaborate with people who have a lot of the same defensive adaptations as you—people who have succeeded by being brilliant, despite being 'alone at the top.'  It's no wonder that innovation/creative team dynamics often look a lot like soap operas or telenovelas, with tragic misunderstandings obscuring the fact that really, many of the cast could love each other and have easier lives if they just opened their hearts and stopped with the politics. 

Beyond a Team of Individuals: Helping the Lone Wolf Collaborate

The wounds of being unusual—whether because of creativity, brilliance or unusual ways of working and socializing—often evolve into adaptations. To successfully support a team member who is not, well, functioning as a team member, both implicit and explicit acknowledgment of those adaptions are necessary from all sides.

Firstly, the lone wolf, as I'll call them, must want to 'join the pack.' This comes either from job necessity, which can be difficult when accompanied with an 'or else' statement from a superior, or comes from a desire for more ease and balance. Often, I see extroverted, team-focused coaches and managers emphasize messages which boil down to 'wouldn't you rather play with the rest of the kids?,' a sentiment based on models of extroverted work which don't fit everyone, and which does not get to the root of what matters to the person in question.  

It sounds simple, but listen: ask the team member in question what actually matters to them. Is it getting their idea to fruition? It is more life-work balance and lower stress? Is it an increase in connection with their team for a sense of belonging and shared purpose? Generate compassion for the fact that your colleague (or you, for that matter) may not have experienced effective teamwork before, and has probably been forced to collaborate and/or heard promises of the benefits of collaboration which fell short. It's also possible that they see no need to collaborate, and you'll have to accept that and examine whether or not your need to have them to work collaboratively is really a need, and worth the effort.

In return, and especially if your colleague see less need for collaboration that you, share your wants and needs around both interpersonal and business outcomes. Your colleague or coachee may not resonate with all of your wants, but is more likely to be able to attend to the needs if you're not packaging them with your view of how they need to be met. If you need, for example, more transparency on their work process and you need their projects to be collaborative enough for others to participate for the sake of reliability, don't package that need with your solution of having the project work all take place in the office and in a certain project management software. It sounds elementary, but when under pressure, it's easy to fall back into the trap of trying to fix a problem which is not even agreed-upon yet, and the process can be alienating for everyone involved. Instead, give your colleague the chance to suggest solutions. 

Finally, it's important to remember that this journey of inviting people to work together is a long, long process which takes a lot of practice. Rather than resisting that your innovation or creative team have big differences in working styles, habits and the like, put in practices to find and maintain common ground.

Future explorations:

  • Creating common toolsets: the lowest common collaborative denominator
  • Bands of Misfits