Bullish: Teamwork Is Overrated (How To Be A Lone Unicorn)

Jennifer Dziura writes Bullish, a career column, for The Grindstone on Fridays and Bullish Life, a life coaching column, for our sister site TheGloss on Tuesdays.

The idiom for a person who acts alone is “lone wolf.” (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.

If no one around you ever advocates a strong and unusual course of action, does an entire project alone, puts her name on the end project, and takes responsibility if the project fails, then your doing so is either brilliant or foolish. It’s hard to say.

In Bullish: Social Class in the Office I talked about 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 fucking 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.

There are benefits and drawbacks to such a work environment. In the U.S., big companies are the easiest path to health insurance.

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.

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    • Amanda White

      Remember how in high school when you would be assigned group projects, there was always some snot-nosed overachiever who would just do the whole thing herself and then bitch about how she had to do the whole thing herself? And everyone’s kinda going, um you just missed the whole point of group projects? Maybe we should give the snot-nosed overachiever some retroactive credit, as that was actually the most effective way to do the project.

      • Jennifer Dziura

        Second to “not mandating group projects,” you may be right! I am big on letting the most qualified person get the job done, already.

        Once, my graphic designer asked me my favorite colors. You know, for my company’s logo. And I said, “They don’t matter.” I asked her if she knew what colors would probably be best in terms of creating the right associations and getting people to buy things. She did!

        Groups make worse decisions than experts. Why take the right thing and dilute it because of some consensus fetish?

      • Kele

        Actually, I remember being the person who had to scramble at the last minute to do the entire project when one or more of my ‘teammates’ failed to show up or do their portion of the project. As a result, I started just planning ever project assigned as ‘group work’ as if it had only been assigned to me. That way, if people actually did their part, great, but if not, I wasn’t rushing to make up the lost work.

    • Amber

      Im def struggling with being by myself and doing everything by myself. Its difficult as a fashion blogger but I am making it work!



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    • Saphy

      During my law degree we were constantly forced to do groupwork projects. Fortunately we all hated them so we used to divide the essay/presentation into 4 clear sections, work on one section each and generally take nothing to do with each other until it was time to present it/hand it in. So much better – instead of wasting hours on “group meetings” and “branstorming” we just got the damn thing done!

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