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How to Work Well on a Team When You Prefer to Operate Alone

By Maurie Backman - May 31, 2019 at 7:36AM

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We're not all natural team players. Here's what to do when you'd rather fly solo but can't.

Back when I was in high school and college, there was nothing I hated more than group projects. It wasn't because I inevitably wound up doing the bulk of the work; it was because I wanted to do all the work.

I'll admit it: I've always preferred to work on my own rather than work with other people. This doesn't mean I don't enjoy collaborating some of the time with my peers. But for the most part, I like to work at my own pace (usually a fast, intense one), set my own schedule, and adhere to my own borderline perfectionist standards. Or, to put it another way, there's a reason I became a writer -- a job that lends naturally to working solo.

Woman typing on laptop

Image source: Getty Images.

Not everyone gets the option to work solo. If you're the type who prefers working alone but are stuck on a team, here are a few ways to cope and coexist peacefully with your peers.

1. Carve out tasks you can tackle on your own

In most team settings, there are still opportunities to run with ideas and not share them with anyone else. Back when I worked at an electronics company developing content for products, I had to sit in countless meetings with industrial designers, programmers, and marketers. Much of that job involved discussing ideas and working as a collective unit. Still, I was able to make the case for doing some of that work myself, like writing out product play patterns (which detail how products operate) and scripts (which dictate what words those products say to you when you use them).

If you're in a similar boat, identify those items that can be tackled solo, and make the case to take a stab at them on your own before bringing your colleagues into the fold. That should snag you a little alone time on the job.

2. Set clear boundaries on shared tasks

One of the reasons I've shied away from team projects is that I don't enjoy being dragged down when other people procrastinate or do sloppy work. If you have a similar fear, a good way to combat it is to map out who on your team is responsible for which elements of the tasks you're working on together. Maybe Bob is in charge of gathering data, Lucy is responsible for creating some graphics for a presentation, and you're tasked with presenting your findings to your boss. Divvying up responsibilities, rather than having everyone share in each part of a project, might make the process more manageable for you.

3. Tell your team it's not personal

In the course of teaming up with others, your distaste for collaboration may become obvious. Get ahead of that issue by explaining to your colleagues that it's not them, but rather, it's you. There's no reason to offend people needlessly.

Getting stuck in a team environment can be challenging when you prefer to work by yourself. But if collaborating regularly is a real bummer in your mind, you'll need to find a job that lends to solo work (like mine) -- even if it means moving your career onto a slightly different path.

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