Tips for managing a “free spirited” team member

freespiritA benefit of being a project manager is that you get the chance to work with a variety of different types of people.  While this might sometimes make you feel that you are living in “interesting times”, it also provides a great opportunity to stretch your soft skills.

If I were to ask you what is the most frustrating type of team member to work with, I’m sure I would get plenty of votes for primadonnas, sloths or those who openly denigrate project management.  Less spectacular, but equally challenging is what I’ve termed the free spirit.

A free spirit is a team member who is highly competent and can even be extremely productive, but who embraces the motto “Don’t fence me in”.  The pursuit of perfection is a guiding principle and hence they are unfazed by minutiae such as the triple constraint.  Planning and estimation provide little value to them – they know what they are doing, but they can’t tell you exactly how they are going to do it and won’t hazard a guess as to how long it will take to do it.

Forget about tracking progress – they’ll tell you when they are done and while they’ll complain endlessly to you about issues that are impacting their work, the only way you might get any type of interim updates out of them (inaccurate or inconsistent though those might be) is by frequently nagging or chasing them.  Unfortunately this chasing will only serve to infuriate the free spirit and they are likely to add you to their list of productivity issues and in extreme cases may fully tune you out!

If this sounds familiar and you believe you’ve got a free spirit on your team, what can be done to avoid mutually assured frustration?

If you are in a projectized organization, you would likely have sufficient power to replace them, but that is just admitting defeat and may not even be feasible if the free spirit possesses unique skills that are crucial to the project’s success.  In matrix or functional organizations, you may have no formal recourse – the team member’s direct manager is likely aware of their behaviors and while they may support you in discussions with the free spirit they are unlikely to take a very direct hand in helping to resolve matters.  Even escalating to the customer or project sponsor may not help – you might be able to enforce compliance but you can’t control the accuracy or quality of the information you’ll receive through coercion.

In such cases, softer approaches may be required:

  • Plan your negotiation including identification of what your BATNA is and focus on establishing shared objectives and goals for the discussion.
  • Take the time to try to help them understand what the benefits of forecasting and predictability are to project success and clearly articulate what is in it for them if the project succeeds on all fronts.  If their work is a prerequisite for others, help them understand the benefits in better clarity and explain to them how delays in their timelines will result in either excess work and stress for downstream contributors or customer satisfaction issues if deadlines are missed.
  • Use the power of analogy – ask them if they’ve ever had any major renovations done and how comfortable they’d feel if they weren’t provided with a regular understanding of progress and effort remaining.
  • Appeal to what is meaningful to them – help them understand that quality is just as important to you as it is to them and that following consistent practices in planning & tracking demonstrates their commitment to quality overall.
  • Offer to help them decompose their work to a low enough level of granularity indicating that this will eliminate your need to get any updates beyond what has been completed in a given reporting period.
  • Remove hurdles from their path – if you can help resolve one or more critical issues which are impeding their progress, they may begin to respect your abilities and may be more open to “playing ball”.

There are no guarantees, but by seeing the world through the eyes of the free spirit you may be able to leverage their creativity while still meeting project expectations.

Categories: Facilitating Organization Change, Project Management | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Tips for managing a “free spirited” team member

  1. shomacrae

    I would add appeal to their ego. While this might be a bit manipulative, complimenting their thinking style and letting them know your role is to translate their amazing thinking into a format understandable by others, can be effective. This is especially true if the free spirit is conscientious because then they want to be effective, so play off that motivation and add in an ego boost.


  2. kbondale

    Absolutely – I never consider it manipulation if you are able to help someone see how they can benefit (either tangibly or as an ego boost) by aligning with the team.

    Thanks for the feedback!



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