Why – and How – to Support a Lone Wolf in a Team-Based Project

26 Mar

Team work is an important skill that employers are looking for in college graduates [see findings in an AACU-sponsored survey]. You can help your students develop teamwork skills by mindfully incorporating a team project into your course.  Consider the situation of planning a team-based assignment that incorporates vantage points and grows the skills of students who prefer to work alone: The psychological persona of the ‘lone wolf’ as described by Maryellen Weimer in a recent Teaching Professor blog post. 

For this WOW! post I’ll consider the lone wolf and team-based assignments through ideas presented in “Exploring the ‘lone wolf’ phenomenon in student teams” from the Journal for Marketing Education.  Authors Terri Feldman Barr, Andrea Dixon, and Jule Gassenheimer describe the lone wolf as someone who is committed to working hard on the team project, but who also would also prefer to work solo because s/he doesn’t think others are as competent as s/he is.

Barr and colleagues list the following characteristics of lone wolves:

  • highly committed to the work
  • task-oriented
  • devotes tremendous energy to completing their tasks
  • doesn’t feel loyalty to the group
  • lacks patience to work with others
  • spends little time and energy on interpersonal interactions
  • sees others as less capable than themselves

The authors found that the lone wolf can have a negative impact on student team performance.  For instance, some students may be discouraged from participating because of the lone wolf’s dismissive reaction to peer’s contributions.  A less direct approach sometimes employed by the lone wolf is to offer to put a final project together at the end. With this positioning the lone wolf can change – control – the product to reflect what they believe are his or her higher standards of work.

The authors provide some strategies for instructors to support the lone wolf in team projects.  One is to teach all students about team dynamics and encourage them to establish team goals, set priorities, and rotate leadership roles.  Another is to provide opportunities to highlight the strengths and expertise of all team members early in the project to help the lone wolf see specific ways in which his/her teammates as capable and trustworthy.

In managerial terms, the lone wolf is “someone who scores high on job involvement but low on organizational commitment.” This description of the lone wolf aligns with a conflict management model described by Karl Smith in Teamwork and Project Management.  The model is represented by a matrix with low and high orientation to the project goal on one axis and low and high orientation to the relationships on the other axis.  The relative weight between a team member’s orientation to the project goals and the relationships with fellow team members predicts the conflict management approach they are likely to use during times of team conflict. For example:

  • People who place high importance on the goal, but low importance on the relationships are likely to use forceful methods to deal with conflict, putting all of their energy into getting the task done. 
  • People who place low importance on the goal but high importance on the relationships are more likely to take a smoothing approach to conflict management hoping to be liked and accepted.  
  • People who place little importance on either the goal or the relationships are likely to use withdrawal or avoidance as a conflict management approach. 

The first situation is a good description of the lone wolf who would put all of her or his energy into shaping the final project to one set of standards with little to no energy invested in team relationships.  This also suggests additional mechanisms for supporting the lone wolf in a team project. 

An instructor assigning a teamwork project could leverage the lone wolf’s commitment to the goal of the project by explicitly stating that – and modeling ways that – team building and working effectively with others is an important goal of the project. 

How might an instructor do that:

  • Show that you value teamwork.  Set aside time in class to allow students to work on the process of building a team.  Ask them to create a team charter and award them points for doing so. 
  • Highlight your own work on team process.  Students may see you as a lone wolf if you teach by yourself.  Bring in someone to serve as an expert guest instructor on certain topics or talk about how you seek advice and collaborate with others as part of your scholarly work and teaching.
  • Require team members to rate each other in team building skills, in addition to project skills.  Have that rating count for a portion of each student’s final project grade.

Taking these steps can help the lone wolf use his or her positive attributes for the betterment of both the team project and the team itself.


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.

Smith, Karl A. (2004). Teamwork Skills and Problem Solving in Teamwork and Project Management, 3rd ed. McGraw Hill, New York, New York.

Weimer, Maryellen, A Lone Wolf’s Approach to Group Work, The Teaching Professor Blog, http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/lone-wolfs-approach-group-work/


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