Leaders, Do You Prefer Self-Sufficient Team Members?

Leaders can easily see the impact of people who chronically complain and contribute less than what is needed and less than their potential.

What do leaders think about about action-oriented team members who do not accept input and help? Do you prefer high performing self-sufficient team members even if they resist input and help from others? What if one of them is highly experienced like a senior network engineer?

Image: MathSticks.com

Traditionally, most believe that teamwork needs people who both offer and accept input and help. I thought about this as I remembered an IT project teammate from many years ago who did not accept input or help from others on the team. He did a great deal of work on the project, gave brief status reports of what he did, and that was it. The leader of the project did not see it as a problem.

What do you think? What is the impact on the organization’s current goals, on the future success of the business, and on teamwork overall?

As a leader, do you generally ask the action-oriented self-sufficient team members to handle the more critical areas because you feel confident they will deliver?  Not all refuse input and help. What about the ones who do?

There are some effects of this behavior:

  • Solutions that cover only that team member’s perspective
  • Blind spots and exposures if that team member is unavailable or leaves
  • Less knowledge and readiness for future organizational goals and needs
  • Change in team dynamics and possibly less willingness to ask for help

This issue is quite prevalent on teams yet is often not discussed nor addressed. Is it a silent toxin? Or is it irrelevant to the success of the business? What do you think?

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach, works with leaders and their teams at the Fortune 500 on developing the optimal teamwork for today’s changing global business needs. See team workshop outlines at Team Building Workshops.

11 Responses to “Leaders, Do You Prefer Self-Sufficient Team Members?”

  1. Thought provoking post.
    This is an area that I have also been thinking about about and researching, what to do with highly skilled team members who are at a different cognitive and time-span capacity to solve problems are achieve goals.
    It is important for the team leader to know and understand that each person on the team has different abilities to work in different bands of time to achieve goals. For example a front-line employee time-span for task completion is generally 1 day-3months. When you move to skilled specialist on the team their time-span for achievement may be 3-5 years (depending upon position and capabilities.)
    This returns to your Self-Sufficient Team member. The manager of the team must align and create the absorptive capacity for all team members to see where they are in reference to the project and in reference to each other.
    So the leaders responsibility (if the person is completing assignments and doing quality work) is to keep the team informed and keep the self-sufficient team member (if they are capable of doing the work) challenged and aligned with their skills; values; and capability.

  2. Having someone like that on a team is detrimental to the team as it leaves the other team members in the dark as to what they should be working on or how it will interface to what the self sufficient is working on. This is harmful not only to the team but to the project as it will cause lags in the schedule.
    It also shows that this person will not learn anything new from the others as they think they know it all. It is an ego out of control and allowed to do so by the manager who, although unwittingly, has allowed it.
    The idea behind a team approach is to get the best that everyone has to offer into one project. Every team member must be open to new ideas and methods in order for it to work.
    Having one prima dona starts to deteriorate the teams function.
    One has to evaluate how important is this person to the department and the company as a whole. Does their contributions warrant them being there? What is the culture of the department? If the culture is team work then they do not fit in.
    Teach them the aspects and advantages of teamwork. If they are still not a team player after that then help them exit gracefully.

  3. Kate, good question and a tricky one. Too often we confuse the attributes of team work or team player with a person’s desire to work with others in a team environment. Individual contributors (people who prefer to be given a task and then left alone to do it) can be great assets to a team. These are the folks who are often frustrated by having to sit in team meetings or group discussions yet produce a significant output and great ideas. As a leader, you can interface with these individuals one-on-one, ask for updates that you can share with the team, or establish systems where the individual contributor’s status is clearly visibile by teammates so that no one is in the dark. In my expereince, the strongest teams are diverse teams. Diversity is not just about gender, race, or nationality. It extends to work styles, conative talents (how you solve problems or get things done) and past experience. Yes, leading diverse teams are at times a challenge for the team leader, but in the end overcoming the challenge is often paid back with a more rewrading outcome.

  4. Kevin DeSoto says:

    Self sufficiency combined with creativity, excellent collaboration skills & mutual respect for others makes for a great working environment.

    Here is my perfect day on the job:

  5. Joe Williams says:

    Kate – I started to craft a response, and I see that Joan hit the points I was going to raise. I’ll echo her point that diversity is key to team success, and individual contributors with the right knowledge, aptitude, and natural talents that compliment the team can make all the difference. As did Joan, I’ll caution that there is a difference between being an individual contributor to a team and equating that to some sort of aptitude deficiency when dealing with a team as a whole. A leader who recognizes this difference can make the best use of the strengths of the individual contributors and help the team succeed.

  6. Kate,

    Add another post to the hall of fame for you. Great idea and something leaders must evaluate in their terms.

    A leader must have a vision that is clearly aligned with company specific goals. His/her team is involved in carrying out specific strategic objectives. Some individuals are simply task managers and great at producing massive amounts of output while others collectively provide input, add value, and produce results, maybe not as much, but equally important.

    The leader must facilitate, coordinate and drive their team. Some will need more than others, but all must be focused on the prize.

    Brock Patterson

  7. Kate Nasser says:

    The comment trend I am seeing so far is that “lone ranger” team members are considered equally valuable as long as they work toward the same tangible end result as the rest of the team.

    Doesn’t this limit the true results the team could achieve if all were willing to interact (i.e. unexplored solutions and unforeseen possibilities)? Joseph’s point above is that there is some detriment to having lone rangers on a team.

    Thoughts anyone?

  8. Jim Morgan says:

    I think if we define our terms, the situation is easier to parse. Teamwork scientists differentiate between “work groups” and “teams.” Work groups are collections of individual contributors who do not need to interact to a great degree in accomplishing their individual tasks. There are plenty of situations where a work group is preferable to a team, such as a sales force in an industry/market where having the members compete with each other for bonuses creates the highest revenue. So the first question for a manager is, does the person have to interact with the manager’s other direct reports to complete his or her tasks? If the answer is “no,” and the person adds more value than their total cost (including the manager’s time), find them an IC position and use measurable performance standards to align their work with the company’s needs.

    That is also the best option if the answer to the question is “yes.” Otherwise, I’m sorry to say there is no scientific evidence that you can leave them on the team as they are without harming the team. Allowing one person to act as an IC on an interdependent team will reduce the sense of fairness the other members feel in their treatment. My reading of the scientific literature suggests this will reduce trust, cooperativeness, satisfaction with the manager, and satisfaction with the job, all of which have been shown to correlate to team performance. The nature of small group psychology suggests you are better off with a person with lesser technical skills and higher cooperative skills because this enhances the capabilities of the team as a whole (for example, see my recent post on a study showing familiarity trumped job experience for project team performance). If the individual can’t be moved, put them on an individual performance plan that lists the teamwork behaviors you need them to exhibit, offers training/coaching help, and sets a short deadline with a consequence of termination. (“Short” means four to six weeks with the possibility of extension if there is significant improvement.)

    Usually when they face a tangible and imminent consequence, they either step up or they voluntarily step out. Those who don’t have been treated with dignity, and you can remove them knowing ultimately they, their former team members, and you will be happier on the job.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      You very well differentiate between work groups/teams and interdependent team members from solo contributors. Excellent addition to this discussion.

      Interdependency is what propels a team to heights that even the leader doesn’t foresee. Thanks!

  9. Barry Dalton says:

    Hey Kate,
    I think there is actually a couple of sub issues under this heading. Certainly as someone running an organization, I want and expect leaders to be self-sufficient. I empower my people and have expectations and encourage them to make decisions. I don’t want nor need people coming to me for every decision. That is a big positive attribute.

    The personal example you gave, however, addresses a different issue. And that issues has to do with HOW that self-sufficiency and leadership is executed and translated down. In your example, the means, in my mind are not justified by the ends. Super productive workers that accomplish that work by running rough shot over colleagues or subordinates, to me is not positive. There are very few professions that can operate effectively as a island like that. Financial traders are one.

    Beyond that, being able to collaborate is a critical part of our modern work structure, even as an individual contributor. The sales person in the field cant be successful without his sales support, engineering, marketing and other partners.

    The software developer can’t be effective without collaboration with QA, business partners, etc.

    Leaders, most definitely, cannot be successful without engaging the work of others. so, I think the leader of the project you described actually failed by enabling this behavior. It is corrosive over time. And, in my experience, those type of folks burn bright for a time, then burn so many bridges, the flame out and move on.


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Barry,
      I am inclined to agree with you. Self-sufficiency and interdependency are not mutually exclusive although the words word suggest otherwise. I have seen lone rangers debilitate a team even if their individual results didn’t crash.

      Your focus on balance between initiative and collaboration is well said and I trust is serving your org. well.

      Thanks for contributing to this discussion.

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