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Separation Anxiety

Don't worry if you have an employee who's not a team player--it is possible to deal with loners in a way that makes everyone happy.
September 1, 2004
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/72236

Serial entrepreneur Peyton Anderson faced a big employee challenge a few years ago when he was at the helm of his first venture, SciQuest. The problem started when one senior-level employee rejected the team approach Anderson, 38, favored. He didn't explain how he did things-but didn't mind telling other employees how much smarter he was than them. He sat alone in his office all day and stood in the corner at the company holiday party. Other employees kept their distance.

Anderson agonized about fitting this talented but unapproachable employee into the company. "He would come up with something once in a while that was wicked smart," Anderson says. "[But] he was not the kind of guy you'd want to have lunch with."

Anderson decided to make the employee a "department of one" who reported directly to him and worked exclusively on special projects. "We did it in the context of 'We want you to work on the important stuff-we don't want you distracted with small personnel issues,'" he says. "He liked that."

Anderson is just one entrepreneur who's managed a "lone ranger," the employee whose personality is as soft as cactus but whose skill makes him or her an asset to the company. The quirks and aloofness of lone rangers can lead to a few showdowns. "Not only does this person have a hard time communicating, [but they also] don't want to communicate," says Leann Mischel, a management professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

Helping Loners Thrive

Companies need to manage lone rangers differently. First, get out of the mind-set that they are a bad thing, and help them understand their roles on the team, says Stephen Fairley, president of Today's Leadership Coaching, a Chicago-based executive coaching and leadership development firm. Hand them entire projects, and avoid micromanaging, a strategy that's sure to backfire. Figure out their strengths, and find someone in the company who can connect on some level with this nonpeople person, at least enough to keep projects moving. "Every Lone Ranger needs a Tonto," Fairley says. "And delegating weaknesses-the areas where [The Lone Ranger] isn't good-is what Tonto's for."

Anderson met with the company's lone ranger every other week to hear his latest ideas. He also "played Tonto" by running interference between the lone ranger and the company's other employees, working hard to smash stereotypes so others weren't resentful of this employee. The key to keeping frustrations low, Anderson says, is to let lone rangers use their strengths while isolating other employees from their weak spots. "That's 100 percent the entrepreneur's job," says Anderson, who is now CEO of Affinergy, a company in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, which makes coatings for medical devices.

Creating a buffer zone helps with prickly people, Mischel says. "Having someone who is able to communicate with them but isn't going to bother them is often a good idea," she says.

First, make sure the employee really wants to be left alone. The lone ranger may ache to be a team player but doesn't know how. A way to find this out is by asking the employee to take charge of something he or she is passionate about, suggests Susan Battley, CEO and founder of Battley Performance Consulting, a performance consulting firm in Stony Brook, New York. This might mean organizing a company event or giving a presentation to the team. "You're able to bring the person into the fold more, and you're also getting knowledge transfer," Battley says. But if the lone ranger balks at the suggestion, don't push it.

Teamwork can mean different things-something entrepreneurs should think about before they hire, Battley says. Does teamwork mean having a team meeting once a week or having employees work closely every day on projects? The answer will determine whether lone rangers fit into the business model. "For some [companies], having a lone ranger wouldn't work," Battley says. "It's a question of whether it's functional for the business."

Tell applicants what kind of teamwork is expected on the job when interviewing. Asking a few targeted questions-how much they like working on teams, how they would describe their workstyles, even whether they prefer team sports over individual sports-can reveal whether applicants prefer working solo.

The goal with lone rangers is to create structure within freedom, balancing the space they want with the needs of the team. "Try to siphon as much information as you can from them, but let them work on their own, because that's the way they work best," Mischel says. "And part of being a good manager is to recognize the environment that's going to let each person give their best efforts."