Forge your own path. March to the beat of your own drummer. Do things differently.

Society celebrates free-thinkers and their undeniable individuality—particularly in entertainment. From James Bond and Top Gun’s Maverick to Ferris Bueller and Robin Hood, pop culture loves to romanticize and glorify characters who play by their own rules.

There’s arguably no better example than Han Solo, the rogue space smuggler who saves the day time and again across the Star Wars galaxy. We can’t help but love that he shot first.

But work isn’t a movie and there’s no script for collaboration. So how do we really feel about the notorious rule-breakers on our teams? Do we admire and applaud their ruthless execution? Or do we rue the time we spend cleaning up their messes?

There are pros and cons to having a rogue or rebel on your work team. Let’s explore the benefits and challenges, as well as how to foster better collaboration between all your team members—even those notorious soloists.

Stormtrooping to the Beat of Their Own Drummer: The Benefits of Free-Thinking Team Members

It’s challenging to collaborate with or manage someone intent on bucking tradition, especially when you work on a highly process-oriented or rule-driven team.

But make no mistake: Rebels also bring many positives to the table.

“This person is not your enemy or even necessarily a troublemaker,” explain Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina, authors of “Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change From Within,” in their article for Forbes. “In fact, rebels could be your most valuable employees, helping you identify risks, solve problems, and create better ways to work.”

Think about it this way: Rebels aren’t content to stick with the status quo or fall into the “we’ve always done it this way” trap. They innovate. They take risks. They can bring about real, positive change within their organizations.

Having guts is one of the top five traits of high-potential employees, says Samuel Bacharach, a labor management professor at Cornell University, in his article for Inc..

Inherent grit and courage can’t be taught. The ability to positively harvest these traits within rebel employees reaps major gains for your team and your company as a whole.

Go Their Own Way, They Will: The Pitfalls of Team Members Who Buck the Status Quo

Working with or managing a rebel isn’t all hassles and headaches, but there are inevitable challenges. Their ceaseless itch to work their own way often makes them difficult to collaborate with and can cause friction on your team.

It throws teams out of alignment when resident rebels refuse to play by the rules. Division around work approaches and goals negatively impacts production and performance. About 97% of employees and executives believe lack of alignment within a team directly impacts the outcome of a project.

Rogue employees also make leadership more difficult. Continuously allowing a rebel team member to ignore rules and standards quickly undermines your authority as a manager. Soon others will stop listening to you too.

When a team lacks a strong leader, a more dominant member of the group can often take charge. This can lead to a lack of direction, infighting, or a focus on the wrong priorities.

Finally, letting team rebels continue to forge their own paths without consequences or an effort to right the ship can be perceived as playing favorites. Why does one person get to break the rules while everyone else is held to a higher standard? Perceived favoritism leads to team tension—and maybe a few epic lightsaber battles.

How to Guide Your Team’s Rebels Without Using the Force

We’ve already established the pros and cons of rebel team members. Effectively managing these free-thinking team members minimizes potential drawbacks and tips the scales in your team’s favor.

What exactly does it take to channel the energy of a rebel—without using Jedi mind tricks or squelching their enthusiasm and creative thinking? How can you leverage their strengths to inspire positive change on your team, as opposed to allowing their independent spirit to become a source of tension?

Here are a few tips to successfully manage rebels and encourage improved collaboration between soloists and other team members.

1. Set Clear Goals

What you’re trying to accomplish shouldn’t be a mystery to your team. Sound obvious? You’d be surprised how many leaders fail to make overarching methods and objectives clear. Only 14% of organizations report their employees have a solid grasp of the company’s strategy and direction, according to a 2012 performance management survey.

“When rebels clearly understand what the organization is trying to accomplish and why, they can focus their energy on creating ideas that support that goal or vision. Without a clear vision, rebels may go off in many directions, some helpful and others not so much,” write  Kelly and Medina in their Forbes article.

Whenever a new project or initiative is introduced, take the time to thoroughly explain:

  • The project goal
  • Why the goal matters—both for your team and the company as a whole
  • The deadline and any other success metrics team members can use to gauge their progress

This isn’t a “set it and forget it” strategy. Get some regular check-in sessions on the calendar for the whole team to talk about progress, roadblocks, and any necessary tweaks or improvements. This will keep your entire team moving toward the same destination—even if they take slightly different routes.

2. Collaborate More

It’s easy to accuse rebels of causing headaches. But when rifts arise, ask yourself: Is this a problem with one rebellious employee, or does this call for a larger cultural shift on your team?

Just 24% of employees say their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement. Anybody (but especially rebels) becomes frustrated when they feel like they’re just another cog in the wheel. They’ll shrug off team norms in attempt to get noticed or make a real impact if they feel their voices aren’t heard or opinions aren’t valued.

When your rebel starts rousing, it’s worth taking a step back and re-evaluating “the way things have always been done.” Make an effort to incorporate more collaboration into your processes. Don’t just dish out instructions—sit down with your team to get their thoughts. Encourage them to speak up with suggestions and feedback. Set clear end goals, but don’t micromanage every step of the process.

Soon your rebel will seem less like an insurgent and more like a highly engaged employee.

3. Show the Impact of Their Behavior

It’s easy to lose sight of how your own actions impact the whole team. Your rebel might not see his desire to go about things his own way is causing confusion and bottlenecks for others.

It’s management’s job to make sure each team member understands how their own decisions—both good and bad—have consequences for the entire team. Since rebels laugh in the face of disorganization, it’s best to focus on the emotional impact of their behaviors, as opposed logistical effects.

For example, imagine your rebel team member refuses to stick to your standard blog post production process. The design team is flustered, the SEO team doesn’t know when to step in, and everybody is growing increasingly frustrated.

Don’t say: I really need you to follow the standard production process for blog posts. That ensures we produce the best content on time.

Instead, make it clear how their actions impact team members directly and say something like: I really need you to follow the standard production process for blog posts. When you don’t, the design team can’t tell when they should create graphics, and that makes it difficult for them to manage their own workload. Alternatively, you could schedule a meeting or a virtual team bonding session and have everyone come together to discuss the issue — just make sure things stay respectful.

Studies have shown pleasing our co-workers motivates us more than our salaries! Your rebel probably isn’t on a mission to make your other team members miserable. Helping her see that her decisions have negative consequences for real people—not just inanimate systems and processes—is far more likely to reduce her disruptive behavior.

4. Play to Strengths

You’ll never change the fundamental personality of a rebel team member—and you shouldn’t want to. Your team needs a mix of different personalities. Diversity is a key component of high-performing teams!

Rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes, play to each team members’ strengths. Data-driven management consulting company, Gallup, explains it’s far more effective to build strengths than it is to improve weaknesses.

If your rebel team member is all about creative thinking and big ideas, don’t try to make them keep meticulous records and manage project details. Instead, encourage them to lead team brainstorming sessions.

That other team member who prides himself in his outstanding organizational capabilities? Let him manage the details and take notes.

Familiarize yourself with your team’s personal strengths. Have them complete a short, informal survey (we recommend StrengthsFinder) about the type of work they enjoy most.

Of course, everybody has to tackle groan-worthy tasks sometimes. But structuring assignments based on team strengths pulls the best out your employees—rather than highlighting their flaws.

Ready to Make the Most of Your Rogues and Rebels?

Pop culture glorifies the Han Solos of the world. But in real-life work environments, these soloists’ actions can have negative consequences and put a dent on team collaboration, operations, and morale.

On the other hand, rebels bring unparalleled innovation, creativity, and ambition to the table, and make standout employees when managed effectively.

Put the tips we’ve outlined above to good use and watch collaboration between the soloists and the rest of your team skyrocket to a galaxy far, far away.

Want to learn more about how to build a highly collaborative team? Download our free eBook below, The Route to Excellence: The Wrike Way.


Image source: Marcelo Braga