In the movie The Incredibles, the protagonist, Mr. Incredible, regularly declares “I prefer to work alone.” As expected, this ultimately comes back to bite him. The moral of the story: Sometimes even talented people who prefer to work alone can only succeed through cooperation and collaboration.
That said, I have a confession to make: I am basically an introvert, and I, too, prefer to work alone. This confuses many people, because I am not shy at all. I have also been described as an introvert who overcompensates.
Many project environments can be a real challenge for people who prefer to work alone. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain suggests that the modern workplace is designed by extroverts for extroverts. This is apparent in the corporate world’s love of cubicles, endless focus on collaboration, and acceptance of a meeting culture. All of this works fine for the majority of people on most projects, but it presents a real problem for those of us who fall on the introverted side of the equation.
Collaborating as an introvert
The surprising truth is that an estimated one-third of us are true introverts. This does not mean we can’t collaborate or that we don’t like people; it’s just that we’re more productive and most energized when working alone. Introverts derive their energy from time alone, but this source of strength may also create a problem. If you’re energized from time alone, then your most productive working time will probably be when you’re working alone.
Whether you’re an introvert or prefer to work alone for reasons purely related to productivity, you may find yourself frustrated by today’s corporate environment, where collaboration and teamwork are downright mandated.
Here are four suggestions for ways to be a better team collaborator, even when you are a lone wolf at heart.
1. Build in solitary time
One of the subplots of the movie Jerry Maguire is how Tom Cruise’s character cannot stand to be alone. He surrounds himself with people at all times and panics when he’s alone.
I find that I am closer to the opposite. I can function perfectly well in group settings, but I have to have solitary time to hit the true center of my productivity. I make it a point to schedule quiet time away from people to bear down on my projects. In fact, I have gone so far as to structure one day per week where I work in solitude. Learning to manage this balance has provided an incredible boost to my work output.
2. Define boundaries
Collaboration can be a wonderful thing, but boundaries are as important on projects as they are in relationships. When it comes to project work, boundaries really come down to interfaces and expectations. This is not about how your deliverable interfaces with the project but how you interface with the rest of the team and the stakeholders.
For example, carve out specific user stories, functions, work deliverables, or sub-projects for which you are primarily responsible. Then make it a point to integrate these back into the main project quickly and regularly. It only takes a small amount of effort to communicate with the rest of the team, and suddenly you’re a team player, perhaps without ever leaving your home office.
3. Recognize when teams are beneficial
Even the most committed lone wolf can see his or her efforts compounded by a good team. A great example of this is captured in Daniel James Brown’s excellent book, The Boys in the Boat, which recounts the Washington rowing team’s 1936 quest for the Olympics. One of the main characters has outstanding individual potential, but he finds that his real challenge is to integrate solidly with the team.
The author describes it this way: “For Joe, who had spent the last six years doggedly making his own way in the world, who had forged his identity on stoic self-reliance, nothing was more frightening than allowing himself to depend on others . . . Depending on people, trusting them–it’s what gets you hurt.”
But Joe finds his impact can be multiplied many times over when he learns to trust the others in his boat and to contribute to something much larger than he could accomplish alone. The poet, John Donne, communicated a related sentiment in Meditation XVII when he said: “No man is an island entire of itself.”
4. Everything in moderation
I began my career as a software developer, which is one of those jobs that often requires both a lot of concentration and a lot of collaboration with team members and customers. One day my team was notified that we would be implementing a new technique called paired programming. The essence was that two developers would work together in the same space. One of us would code while the other would observe what the first one was doing. Every two to four hours, we would swap roles.
After a few weeks of this, I was surprised to find that my productivity actually increased, while my job satisfaction decreased. By working in pairs, we would catch problems, develop alternative solutions, and the one writing the code was always a bit more conscientious working while being observed. The downside for me was that I really preferred to work without someone staring over my shoulder the entire day. We finally discovered a compromise. The team found that by working in pairs every other day we achieved a good balance for everyone. In the interim days, we contributed to the project in other ways such as documentation or other activities that could be performed alone.
Today, I still have to limit the hours where I am interruptible. That is not always possible for everyone on every project, but when you can carve out even one or two hours where email is turned off and the phone is silenced, it can make a critical difference in concentration and productivity.
For most of us who have not chosen a hermit’s existence, collaboration is a fact of life. For some, it is a wonderful, energizing experience, but for others it can be a distraction. By implementing some of the suggestions and techniques described above, you can have the best of both worlds.
Tell us how you contribute to the team while carving out your own space and time at work.