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A Lone Wolf’s Approach to Group Work

“I’d really rather work alone. . .”

Most of us have heard that from a student (or several students) when we assign a group project, particularly one that’s worth a decent amount of the course grade. It doesn’t matter that the project is large, complex, and way more than we’d expect an individual student to complete. That doesn’t deter these bright, capable students who are confident of their abilities and really don’t want to work with others much less depend on them for their grade.

Should we let them go it alone? Often they aren’t especially good group members. They have definite ideas about how the work should be done and quickly make judgments about the capabilities of others. These “lone wolves,” as some have dubbed them in the literature, are very task-oriented. When studied in professional contexts, they don’t feel much loyalty to the organization and aren’t all that into interpersonal relationships with co-workers. In student groups, they don’t think others are as committed to or capable of doing quality work.

A great deal of research has looked at “social loafers” in groups, those students who don’t do their fair share of the work, but almost nothing has been done on “lone wolves” whose behaviors also compromise group effectiveness. Some posit that there’s a relationship between the two behaviors. Not all “social loafers” are lazy and irresponsible, according to some researchers. They might be students who lack confidence. When they’re in a group with someone who epitomizes confidence and capability, and someone with very clear ideas about what the group should be doing, these reticent students end up behaving like social loafers because they’re pretty sure whatever they do isn’t going to be good enough. That conclusion is confirmed when they finally offer an idea only to have it dismissed or ignored, or the work they submit is redone without their involvement.

Some lone wolves take a more subtle approach. They wait until the group is close to wrapping up the project. Then they volunteer to put it all together for the group, which in most cases gives them complete control over the final product. They can re-organize it, add, delete, or revise sections, and create the product they think the group needs to submit.

Given all this, maybe it’s a good idea to let those who want to work alone do so. Maybe they’re headed to one of those professions where they don’t have to work with others. What would that profession be? Even those of us in academia with “lone wolf” tendencies are often surprised (and dismayed) to discover how regularly we are called upon to work in groups.

If we want to help lone wolves acquire constructive group skills, we need to start developing their awareness (and ours) that these behaviors compromise group effectiveness just as seriously as social loafing. The reference below contains a short instrument with questions that point out some of the beliefs and behaviors of lone wolves. When groups convene to start working on projects, they should be guided through a discussion of individual behaviors that help and hinder group processes.

Groups can agree to take actions that will help lone wolves become more relaxed about working with others. Members can create drafts of project parts and have them reviewed by others in the group with the expectation that they will have to make revisions based on the feedback received. Group members can work in pairs, not individually, so that collaboration occurs on every part of the project.

I used to tell students who didn’t want to work in a group that my goal was not to make them like group work, but to help them develop skills they could use when they had to work with others. Lone wolves often have leadership abilities—they are willing to work hard and they have high standards. Group members with those characteristics can be a great asset to any group. And when lone wolves use their strengths to support the group, they occasionally discover that there are others worthy of their trust.

Reference: Barr, T. F., Dixon, A. L. and Gassenheimer, J. B. (2005). Exploring the ‘lone wolf’ phenomenon in student teams. Journal of Marketing Education, 27 (1), 81-90.