This employee got the company t-shirt, but would rather not wear it, thank you very much. Shooting the crap in the break room with everyone else or going out for Friday 5 o'clock happy hour with the gang isn't on this employee's workplace bucket list. Never will be. When it comes down to it, he or she can be about as soft as prickly cactus and tends to have a hard time interacting with most people.
Conversations with this employee might come off as awkward, forced and off-putting somehow. These workers just seem sort of...mysterious?...and make you wonder what they do when they're not at work, because they don't really share very much about themselves. How can someone who has worked here for five years be such a blank slate to everyone else in the office? The ultimate introvert, this employee gives off a Greta Garbo-like aura of I vant to be alone. Are you done bugging me now? I have work to do. Oh good, you're finally leaving. Phew. They say no man (or woman) is an island, but these employees come pretty close.
Managers (and co-workers) can wonder what to do with this employee, even if he or she exhibits only the vaguest sense of lonership on the job. Few people, especially extroverts, look forward to interacting with him or her, because it can be like pulling teeth, or even slightly intimidating in some cases. The company doesn't want to get rid of the gruff, loner employee, however, since he or she is usually very dependable and insanely talented. The company needs this person's skill set. If only he or she seemed like more of a team player, huh? One of these things is not like the other ones, one of these things is not the same. Take it away, Mr. Hooper.
Never underestimate how much the loner employee can bewitch, bother and bewilder the average team, not to mention befuddle the average inexperienced manager. I wrote a workplace column about it years ago in which I referred to these workers as "lone wolves" or "Lone Rangers." So how do you manage this team-eschewing enigma? Here are five tips:
1.) Don't micromanage. It's the worst thing you can do to these employees, who will chafe under the forced closeness. It's akin to putting an extreme extrovert alone in a storage closet without a smartphone and telling him or her to stay there. Instead, give the lone wolf space to do the work, which they do rather well, don't they? Check in with them periodically (maybe have a quick one-on-one once a week, or every two weeks) but don't push it. This approach requires trust, of course.
2.) Find a Tonto. One thing I learned in writing a column on this topic is to find THE ONE PERSON (TM) in the office who seems to have an easier time interacting with the Lone Ranger than everyone else. Essentially, this employee is the Lone Ranger's Tonto and can serve as a buffer zone or intermediary since gregarious communication is the Lone Ranger's weak spot. Hey Dave, there's cake in the break room. Just want to let you know. Oh, and Susan in accounting wants to know if you have the spreadsheet ready yet. You get the idea.
3.) See their positive traits. These employees are so closed off and abrasive that it can be easy for managers to start viewing them as the antithesis of teamwork, but it all depends on how you look at it. Sure, this employee would rather skip the off-site team building day but man, oh man -- did he do a great job on that project to save our butts last month! Now that's a form of teamwork; it's just done in a different way. Viewing these workers from a productivity and skills perspective instead of from the social animal perspective can help you see their value.
4.) Involve them. The Lone Ranger can be so quiet that everyone else can forget to include them, which you might think the Lone Ranger would prefer, but even loners like to be asked -- whether it's for input on a project or being invited to a company cookout at a co-worker's house. Never leave these workers out in the cold, especially when it comes to social occasions. He or she might not show up -- ever -- but you did the right thing and asked, anyway. Even loners like to be liked, and some loners -- I know this seems hard to believe -- don't really want to be alone; they just don't know how to be any other way. So show them some love even if it seems like a waste of breath.
5.) Find their passion. What about the work drives this employee? We know it's not communicating with co-workers, so what is it? Coding? Creativity? When you find out, find new ways to spark their energies, get them more involved, and to give everyone else in the company a semi-periodic refresher course on why this person is still at the company (which could be useful if he or she has really rubbed people the wrong way). You'll have to gauge how much more involved the loner employee wants to be, though (be ready for him or her to balk at the idea of more interaction with co-workers on a daily basis). Sure, Tonto might still need to be involved, but the Lone Ranger might quietly be happy to be doing more of the work he or she wants to do or to be put in a starring role occasionally. They'll smile, but on the inside.
See? Working with Mr. or Ms. Gruff can be done, you just need a strategy. Now get to work, Tonto.