Team Leadership: Taming the Lone Wolf

Team Leadership: Taming the Lone Wolf

If you lead teams for a long enough time, you are likely to recruit or inherit a ‘lone wolf’ – a talented, capable individual who has a tough time fitting into your team. Smart, capable, and willing to challenge the status-quo, you see their value; yet, often they are high-maintenance and disruptive to the rest of the team. Moreover, you typically don’t have the luxury of spending substantial amounts of ‘handling time’ with one team member given the typical time and performance pressures placed on most teams. So how do you quickly decide the value of the lone wolf to the team, versus the cost of him or her remaining?

Focus on the Pack, Not the Lone Wolf

Many years ago, on a picture perfect New England autumn afternoon, I had taken my daughter to watch her middle-school football team play. On this Saturday, I was talking with the father of one of the players on the opposing team who had purposefully moved down the sideline, distancing himself from the coaches and players of his son’s team. He did this because he was both the parent of a player on the team, and a National Football League head coach. As you might imagine, this generated some expectations from other parents that his expertise might help his son’s team. This pressure is even greater when you are Bill Belichick, one of the most successful coaches in NFL history. As we watched the game, one young player, who was clearly a gifted athlete, was demonstrating behavior on the field and the sidelines that showed that he was focused more on his success than the success of his team. More than once, the team failed to make progress because this young athlete was out of sync with his team mates and coaches. Observing this, Bill turned to me and said, “Both that player, and the coach, need to learn that the real strength of the wolf is the pack.” It was a simple, powerful observation about the nature of teams, and even today contains insights into the question of how to weigh the value of a lone wolf versus the cost to the team.

The foundation of highly-effective teams is strong, trusting relationships. The impact a lone wolf has on the foundations of your team should guide your decision regarding fit. To understand the impact, you need to assess two key areas of team effectiveness:

First, assess the health of your team’s norms. Team norms are the psychological building blocks of a team. They include essential ingredients such as conversational equality, respect, and psychological safety. If norms are healthy and supportive, they foster energy and engagement. If not, team effectiveness and well-being will deteriorate. Erosion of team norms can occur even when just one team member’s behavior is counter to those norms, and not recognized and addressed by the team leader. A short workshop that identifies team member expectations of the team norms versus what team members are experiencing, and clearly articulating any gaps, will give you insights and early warning of any cracks in your team’s foundation.

Second, assess team member relationships. High-functioning relationships are characterized by minimal gaps between team mate experiences with each other, versus their expectations as they work together to achieve the team’s goals. Experience-expectation gaps across key relationships are the number one reason for deteriorating team relationships and diminished performance. Get anonymous feedback from each team member on his or her expectations versus experience with each team member. Look for gaps in relationships with the lone wolf that are being caused by behavior that is counter to the expected team norms. For example, talking over or down to anyone who ‘cant keep up with them’, or frequently criticizing team mates with no effort to help them or the team improve. These relationship and trust eroding behaviors are the most detrimental to team performance.

The Strength of the Wolf is the Pack

Healthy norms and strong relationships are the foundation of a highly-effective team. Strong relationships do not mean that people never disagree or that there cannot be strong, divergent points of view. In fact, a hallmark of excellent teams is their ability to embrace diversity and discourage group think. However, no team member, no matter how talented, should be allowed to violate the team’s norms or diminish team mate relationships. If you allow those behaviors, and they persist, then over time you are going to see a deterioration in the effectiveness and well-being of the people on your team. By assessing both team norms, and gathering feedback on team mate relationships, you will gain the insights to decide the value of the lone wolf to the team versus the cost of remaining.

As Bill Belichick observed, the real strength of any one member of your team comes from the entire team. People on highly-effective teams excel because of their team mates. Lone wolves may be talented, and of immense value to an organization, but that does not mean that they belong in a pack.


Make the World Better – One Team at a Time

Strong, trusting relationships are the heart of great teams. Team member experiences versus their expectations determine the strength and health of their relationships. Gaps between experiences and expectations can fracture your team, and diminish performance. Closing those fractures builds trust, well-being, and effectiveness. Xmetryx Team Relationship Management (TRM) is like radar for your team’s relationships. It gives you the tools to measure experience-expectation gaps and track your progress closing them.

Start making the world better for your team with Xmetryx.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.