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Teamwork Is Overrated (How to Be a Lone Unicorn)

02/26/2014 01:22 pm 13:22:57 | Updated Apr 28, 2014

The idiom for a person who acts alone is "lone wolf." (Incidentally, Lone Wolf was also a Kiowa chief, and Lone Wolf McQuade was a character played by Chuck Norris in the 1983 film of the same name.)

I started thinking about lone wolves when a friend told me her hiring problem. She posted a job listing for a fundraiser -- a very good, executive-level job -- and everyone who applied kept talking about how they work well in teams.

Interviewer: "What's the first thing you would do?"

Many candidates: "I'd assemble a great team!"

Interviewer: "No. Your team includes this receptionist. She's right here. Try again."

It was clear from the job posting that the person hired would need to "identify new sources of funding and raise adequate funds to enable the organization to carry out its work," along with various responsibilities in grant writing, managing a budget and overseeing audits, and all kinds of other tasks that don't involve "hiring people to do the work for you" or "having long meetings with your peers in which you discuss via groupthink how to do the work so you can avoid taking full responsibility for the outcome."

And yet, repeatedly, candidates would talk about their teamwork abilities, and be met with, "Um, no. You have to actually do the work yourself."

Ultimately, my friend was able to hire someone fabulous, but only after weeding through lots and lots of team players who cannot function independently.

When Teamwork Is Valuable

If you're going to get an MBA, you're probably going to spend at least the next decade of your career working in a large company (how else are you going to pay off the degree?)

Business schools are heavily focused on preparing people to work in large corporations. Thus, much of the structure of business school itself mimics this: you will have a "cohort," and you will join study groups, and you will get along with your classmates despite your many differences. You will be graded at least in part on class participation and group projects.

The larger and more established the company, the more important teamwork probably is. An executive at a major consulting firm told me that managing relationships was his main job, and the actual work was incidental. This is obvious to many people who work in such companies. It's also a problem when such people try to function in startup environments, cash-strapped nonprofits, and as people who actually... do things.

...And When It's Overrated

Susan Cain, whose 2012 TED talk about introversion was sent to me by at least six different people in the same week when the talk came out, said in a 2012 Q&A:

We have a mania for all things collaborative. The word collaboration has taken on a kind of sacred dimension. Collaboration can be a wonderful thing, obviously; I just think we've gone crazy with it, we've gotten lopsided with it, so we're at this moment when many people are working in open-plan offices. They're spending all their days in meetings. You can't pick up a business magazine ever without seeing the word collaborate splashed all over it. I think people are probably feeling assaulted by the need to always be on and always be interacting. So people are seizing anything that gives them permission to say, "No, I actually want to off by myself. And that's okay, and that's going to benefit everybody."

In Bullish: Social Class in the Office I talked about not only this obsession with teamwork (and its dark shadow, totally unnecessary consensus), but also the WASPy, milquetoast way people speak in corporate America. (I love working with contractors because I can easily tell them, "I do not want to pay you anymore because you are not generating results," and it's not some big political issue with someone I have to share a bathroom with every Monday through Friday.)

If you can't call out an idea as a stupid waste of money, it's pretty likely that a bunch of people will go along with just such an idea (especially if the boss likes it), knowing that no one will really take the hit when the idea reaches its inevitable disastrous conclusion.

And if your EQ is way higher than your IQ -- and you couldn't produce anything of value if I locked you alone in a room full of books, computers, and sandwiches for a million years -- then you'd sure as hell better try to attach yourself to a team.

You Can Say No to Big Brother

In the NYTimes' The Rise of the New Groupthink, Susan Cain (again, lone advocate for loners!) wrote:

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there's a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.

She cites a study of computer programmers in which the distinguishing factor in how well the programmers performed was how much "privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption" they enjoyed. She tells us of visits to hell-schools where all learning is collaborative; the desks are in pods, and questions may only be asked if entire groups share the same question. Conversely:

"According to research on expert performance by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, the best way to master a field is to work on the task that's most demanding for you personally. And often the best way to do this is alone. Only then, Mr. Ericsson told me, can you 'go directly to the part that's challenging to you.'"

There's more!

"Decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases." Group brainstorming is objectively ineffective, and the reason it fails is representative of the reason other forms of group work also falter: "People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others' opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure."

When You Must Be a Lone Unicorn

(Why wolves? Wolves are kind of violent. I'm taking back this metaphor.)

My friend's hiring problem reminded me of a similar story I told in Bullish: Starting A Business When You're Broke -- I was passed over for a Director of Marketing job at a 12-person startup in favor of a woman who came from a corporate marketing background. During her nine-week trial period, she made a Powerpoint presentation. Full stop.

When they fired her and called me back in, this Powerpoint became mine. I ignored it. It was basically a bunch of charts and bullet points on the topic of how we would market ourselves if we had a lot more people and a lot more money. Not helpful.

Instead, I set about organizing mixers (guiding principle: if you bring paying customers into a bar, you generally don't have to pay the bar to hold an event) and organizing online contests (marketing budget: one $100 Amex gift card). I wrote in Bullish: How to Sell Without Selling about the value of speaking and event planning in getting clients to come to you.

Being a lone unicorn is a typical and useful state of being for freelancers and entrepreneurs. But it can also boost you up in small, flexible companies -- if I have to lay off almost everybody, I'm going to keep the person who can work alone, and if I have limited money for raises, I'm going to allocate it towards the person who will produce the most for the money.

Sometimes, "collaboration" is just another word for shared incompetence.

Adapted from material first published on TheGloss.