March 12th, 2014

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.

  • Abby Kolb-Selby

    Very helpful information and offers a solution for me related to the group work I do with my nursing students here at NWACC in Arkansas

  • Uncle Matt

    I think the crucial point is that, as you said, the lone wolves are often "bright, capable students." They separate themselves from the herd because they're willing and able to go farther than normal. Telling a lone wolf to work with others is often taken as "You have to either settle for work that isn't your personal best, or you have to do all of the work for other people." And if you're assigning them grades entirely on the quality of the finished product, well, then they ARE being forced to either settle for less or do a disproportionate share. If you're trying to teach group-work skills, you need to make that clear and you need to make it an important part of your grading. That will turn lone wolves into collaborators and leaders.

    • Iris B

      Great comment, Matt. To me, a key point you've made is the following: "If you're trying to teach group-work skills, you need to make that clear and you need to make it an important part of your grading." It is important for the instructor to provide some guidance where collaboration is concerned. I think lone wolves don't trust the process because they are often tossed in with peers who don't work up to the lone wolf's standards, and the instructor turns a blind eye to the dynamics of the group. The lone wolf, therefore, feels (s)he must resort to the skill set (s)he knows best — control, distance, etc. If lone wolves are to be acclimated more effectively into a group, there must be greater clarity, direction, and guidance, if needed, provided by the instructor who has initiated the group effort.

  • Chris Hill

    Prof. Weimer,

    I recommend you take a good look at a relatively new book entitled, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," by Susan Cain. What you have called the "lone wolf" she might be more comfortable calling "the introvert," of whom there are many in the world. Our era's ideology of the superiority of group work, to whose propagation I will admit I have often contributed, is at odds with the psychological reality of how a substantial proportion of people experience their lives. Introverts make many important contributions to literature, science, the arts, the home, sports and other human endeavors; perhaps even to business. If we faculty members are to be serious in our commitment to meeting the needs of our students, we must not pathologize or seek to convert introverts into extroverts because we believe that their success will depend on it. We need to accommodate their learning and functioning styles as much as we try to do for anyone else who doesn't fit our "norms."

    By the way, on the Myers-Briggs, I score exactly in the middle on the intro-extro scale.

    Chris Hill
    Professor of Public Policy and Technology, Emeritus
    George Mason University

    • Kim Parker Nyman

      I was going to mention the very same book, which I think has powerful implications for us. It's past time to question our assumptions that the extrovert "norm" is somehow the healthiest one. Like you, I always score smack in the middle of the extroversion/introversion Myers-Briggs scale.

  • Sarah Chauncey

    This post provides great food for thought! These are some of the thoughts that bubbled to the surface as I read your post and the comments. It may be that group work from a course perspective has not embraced the real-world issues that benefit from partnerships — many brains working together. Group work might follow individual work where each student tackles a problem from a different perspective using her/his personal strengths and interests. Cognitive and confirmation bias can be positively fractured when we attend to contributions from those who disagree. Consider cross-disciplinary / cross-agency collaborations in Smart City initiatives. You might enjoy a book I am currently reading – Social Physics, by Alex Pentland.

  • Laura S

    Matt noted: "if you're assigning them grades entirely on the quality of the finished product…" when I do group projects, I always have the members of the group do peer evaluations to determine the level of contribution by individual group members an then make individual grade adjustments to raise or lower the group/project grade according to how much or how little each member contributed (based on peer evaluation stats).
    Another idea is considering how we assign students to groups to begin with. Many years ago I read an item in the Teaching Professor that suggested a pre-group survey to determine student experience with and attitude toward group projects. Those who indicated that they "hate group projects because they tend to contribute more than their fair share to the project" get grouped together then we have all the "lone wolves" (over achievers) in the same group and they end up doing superb work and actually find the group process can be a valuable experience. On the other end of the scale, if all the "slackers' are grouped together it forces some of them to take the lead and, perhaps for the first time, break out of that "slacker" mode.

    • Cynthia J.

      Hi all,

      I am a "lone wolf" and I'd like to share some reasons why I accept that moniker with pride.

      As an undergraduate BSN nursing student, I was at least 15 years older than my classmates, and the differences between our writing styles was shocking. Very few of my classmates could write an accurately formatted business letter, not to mention APA. With most of the group projects, I volunteered for the job of editor so I could have some control over the quality of the group assignments and receive a grade that reflected the effort put into the assignment. Most classmates were fine with this until I started asking for overdue sections of the assignment from the other group members. That's when trouble alway started with indignant classmates wanting to know "who do you think you are, the instructor?". I can honestly state that there have been so few group assignments that were enjoyable that I can't remember one.

      When I began my MSN-Ed. online program in November 2013, I hoped things would be different. I wish I could tell you that they have been, but that would be a lie. One time a group became so fractious that I submitted a private email to the instructor requesting that the group be split in two, which it was.

      Laura, I think you are onto the right idea by placing the "lone wolves" into a group of their own because that is the only way we will have a pleasant, valuable group experience. It is very disheartening to a dedicated student who is interested in making the most of his or her academic experience to be placed in a group with three or four "party students" who are so focused on other aspects of the college experience that they consistently miss their deadlines or become verbally abusive to requests for re-writes by the editor of the group.

      Excellent students ought not be placed in the position of being indentured servants for a group project, nor ought they be held responsible for managing the group dynamics. The instructor sets the tone for the classroom and group dynamics, and ought not to expect any student to be assigned this role. Excellent students ought to be provided with learning activities that stimulate their learning experiences, and it ought to come as no surprise that these students will not be satisfied with group assignments that are written for the "average" student. The nursing profession needs bright and enthusiastic nurses, and these types of nurses are frequently "lone wolves" who became tired of lazy classmates wanting to copy their notes, or other assistance. That's what the Learning Resource Center or Library are for, and if lazy nursing students aren't willing to do their own hard work during their academic journey, perhaps nursing faculty ought to be unwilling to pass these marginal students through the nursing program, since many of them will become lazy nurses who lack the core competencies to safely provide professional nursing care that is centered on the patient and well grounded in evidence-based practice.

      • Uncle Matt

        Cynthia said: "Excellent students ought not be placed in the position of being indentured servants for a group project, nor ought they be held responsible for managing the group dynamics. The instructor sets the tone for the classroom and group dynamics, and ought not to expect any student to be assigned this role." Precisely! And this is precisely the problem with a lot of the forced group work that's currently popular in higher ed. It's not a good student's responsibility to bolster the weaker students or to organize the class — that's part of a teacher's role.

        I suspect that, all the rhetoric about "developing skills for a career" notwithstanding, lots of teachers/professors deliberately force lone wolves into groups because the teachers don't know what else to do with smart students. So they try to turn those students into proxy teachers, which does a disservice to everyone.

    • Tery G

      As someone who liked groupwork when I was in a group with people who were high achievers and would do the work, and who disliked it intensely when I was in a group with people who would not do the work, I'm beginning to think this kind of grouping is the way to go. Do you have an example of the type of survey you use? I can't find the earlier article on the Teaching Professor website.

      • Laura S

        Group work survey

        At least one assignment in this course involves group work. I know that some students do not like group work for one reason or another. Think about your experience working in groups. Please select the one statement that best matches your experience:

        ___I enjoy working in groups because my group members usually help me understand the material and tasks and therefore I can perform better.
        ___I question the value of group work for me, because I usually end up doing more than my fair share of the work.
        ___I have little or no experience working in groups.
        ___I have a different experience than the choices given above. Please describe:

  • Clinton Staley

    There is merit in in teaching bright non-teamplayers to look past the task itself and become good team members and leaders. But, in my experience teaching Computer Science, the no-team requests often come from top students who are in fact good team players, but have found themselves used by others who do not care about the team, don't fulfill obligations, etc. It's not that the other students are necessarily lazy, but rather that when pressed by other work they find it easier to downprioritize team assignments since the team will cover them.

    In my industry, there is plenty of teamwork, but it is almost always in teams of comparable ability and energy. Teaming a committed, energetic student with peers who are less so gives the better student the impression that in any team s/he will be pulling most of the weight. Assigning teams of roughly equal ability and commitment avoids giving this inaccurate and discouraging message to the most committed and energetic students.

  • Jo

    I've just been reading "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." Not everyone's mind works the same way – of course – and some of the great innovations have been devised by individuals who cannot work productively in groups. As much as we tell students that they will probably have to work in groups, no matter what job they have, studies (as discussed in "Quiet") show that successful businesses are focused on providing quiet places for employees, as research has shown that many productive individuals need privacy and quiet to do their best work.

  • Nature for Health and Beauty

    My experience in life and business tells me that there are people made to work as part of a team and other people who really need to be alone to do their best. I am one of those loners who always had trouble when forced to work in a group. There is nothing wrong with aiming to be the best. Unfortunately, most students aim to memorize what's needed to pass an exam. There is nothing more frustrating than being in a group surrounded by "C" students.

    After college, I dedicated many years to working as an employee for some major corporations. My experience was mostly miserable, Most of the time, the work that others couldn't do was dumped on my desk for me to do. After a while, my frustration led me to start my own business. That was the single most important decision I have made in my life!

    Now I enjoy working alone. I work more efficiently and I'm totally responsible for the work I do for my clients.

  • Michael

    The issue is not really whether or not one is a 'team player', rather the composition of the team. In 'real life' to become a member of any team, one must apply in some way and be either selected or accepted as a member of the team. Not be pressed into working with people who do not have the same interest or commitment to the 'project'!

    Example: University course and a student is assigned to work with three other people on a specific assignment. The student in question has the aims and ambition to achieve a 'high distinction' in whatever she does, one of the other students is the same. The other two take the opinion (Quote) "Why would you want to put that much effort into it? A 'P' is a pass!"

    Question: Is it right that the HD student's marks should be reflected by the lack of effort on the parts of two members of the group? And should the two 'P' students have their marks bumped up by the work of the two HD students? I believe that with a little more time taken in the group selection process with people of like mind being given the opportunity to work together, the results would be much more equitable.

  • Sam Moyers

    I'm sure both extremes are present in meaningful numbers. I have been teaching 9 years at a University business school where students may have 4 other group projects in a semester. In addition the majority of University students do not live on campus and have part time or full time jobs. That can make the logistics of group projects very difficult. I have 50-60 students per class and offer them the choice of working in groups (maximum size 4) or individually. Groups have some additional requirements since they have more people to do research.
    I find about 50-60% of the class works in groups with International students almost always working in a group. The quality of the projects among the better students whether group or individual is comparable.
    Oh by the way, I give groups the right to "fire" members who don't pull their weight and they do peer evaluations which can impact individual grades.
    For me at least this works quite well.

    • Michael

      Hey Sam, point taken. However, I do believe that there are many factors that have to be taken into account. For example, you are a very 'aware' lecturer at a University Business school and your students are already geared to approach their application to study as a member of a team. I, on the other hand, am in Education and while we operate (hopefully) with a degree of 'team spirit' within our respective schools and faculties, in the classroom we have only our own animal instincts to survive on.

      I confess that I have never heard – within the School of Education – of anyone allowing their students to 'fire' a member who is not pulling his weight, but it is a dashed good idea! In our University, individual interviews (where granted) and peer evaluation does not appear to count for much unless it is appertaining directly to the course being studied, or the performance of the lecturer. Thanks for responding though Sam, it is good to get another perspective – stops the festering!

  • JtheGuest

    I'm so glad that Uncle Matt brought this up. Why not interview "long wolves" and ask what their experiences with the "group work" been? I've taken an online degree program and had at least two disasterous experiences where assigned to the group folks didn't pull their weight, formed subgroups based on other "likes" (e.g. being a "Mom with two adorable children". And therefore never having time to actually do something practical like an assignment), or others who never updated their photo profile, so we even didn't know who we were "collaborating" with, or still others – who had no computer skills and therefore, '"let other" do the work, and that meant – ALL THE WORK, or still some who were taking three online courses and degrees, all at once, and simply had no time for such a nonsense such as discussion, drafting, reviewing, etc, etc….

  • JtheGuest

    (cont.)The instructor didn't care less about group dynamics and simply stated his expectations as "make it work". In the end, it was a self-assessment, where the group would get a group mark and the choice was either the highest mark we all voted for, or – you can vote to get the low score, of course, noone would agree on that one. I spent endless hours trying to catch up with all what was lost due to the lack of participation/ indifference/sabotaging…..
    I told my next instructor that he/she could lower my assignment score but only over my dead body I'm doing yet another the 'group project' again. I didn't enroll and paid tution fee to deal with human drama. I'm paying my own money from my own pocket for this, not to mention my time and effort and my family that feel abandoned.

  • MMH

    What about the idea of using an individual and confidential peer evaluation pre-, mid-, and post-project? Often, having students think about their efforts on the group project allows them to see their own weaknesses and apply their strengths to the project. This gives all students a voice, the 'lone wolves' and the 'social loafers'. In my course, I let them know that as the instructor I am very aware of individual efforts because of these evaluations. Depending on the students in a class, you can also either put the strong academic students in a group (and watch what awesome work they can do!), or have a few strong in a group with the less skilled.

  • bgibson135

    A class of Stanford students are grouped and tasked with developing various projects… for use in the real world… and for a grade:
    Extreme by Design

    Being a part of the team that is building "a low-operating-cost IV infusion device" would have driven me nuts. The one member, that had the technical expertise to complete the project, just couldn't finish it until the very last minute.

  • Alison Russell

    I think that if educators are planning on giving group assignments its important to first give a class on groups dynamics and different personality types to allow the students to identify themselves and their possible role in the group. Most students find this knowledge very useful as they are usually not aware of their personality type. Allowing students to actually create their own list of tasks based on their strengths tends to work well. I have used this model when working on Event Management projects at Further Education level. If the lone wolfe wants to coordinate the end product then that's good news because that's where their strength's lie and other group members should appreciate this. Other group members are most likely strong in other areas and once all the team members realise that everyone in the group has a contribution to make things tend to run more smoothly. This is where the learning actually occurs and students realise their strengths and the contribution of other team members. It is however really important that the educator is there to assist the groups at the start. They need to be guided through the early stages of their development. Conflict is part of all group projects and shouldn't be seen as a bad thing. A good educator should be there to support students and be prepared for all the extra work that goes into assigning group projects.

  • Katie Hughes

    When I create groups for collaborative work in my writing courses, I first have students complete a survey that identifies their strengths and weaknesses, including categories such as teamwork, leadership, experience with computer software, writing skills, punctuality and communication. I then create groups that include a diversity of strengths and weaknesses, and I present a brief lecture on successful collaboration. The project is broken down into two grading categories: collaborative work and independent work, with specific relevant criteria for each. This way one student's "bad" writing does not affect another's better work, but their ability to work together and produce a cohesive final product relies on successful collaboration, for which all group members receive the same grade. This seems to tame the lone wolf, as their urge to "fix" others' work is not necessary, but their need to get along and use their leadership skills in a positive way is useful and welcome.

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  • MacIsADork

    “these [lone wolf] behaviors
    compromise group effectiveness just as seriously as social loafing.”

    This has been stated in this article twice, but with not a shred of evidence. It was even said that there is plenty of evidence of social loafers, but none available on lone wolves. So how can it be validated that lone wolves actually compromise group effectiveness? Why is it assumed a lone wolf should be made to fit into a situation where they likely won’t work at their top productivity?