If You Work in Teams, You Need to Spot These 5 Types

How to handle the most lethal types of team members

Posted May 02, 2018

In academia and medicine, the stakes are no longer Publish or Perish. Instead, the stakes are more like Deliver or Wither. Even if you spend most of your time in a lab or working with patients or students, the ultimate product of your research ends up being writing of some stripe—part of the then-controversial claim Steve Woolgar and Bruno Latour made in Laboratory Life, a fly-on-the-wall study of a lab at the Salk Institute. So most of us end up writing collaboratively, which can entail no end of unpleasant surprises, from the collaborator who expects you to do everything to the control freak who only knows what she doesn’t want—and only knows it when she sees what you've sweated blood over and gets back to you, usually hours before your deadline arrives with both feet.

You may recognize some of these five common types of team members.

1. The Intelligent Agree-er.
    The Intelligent Agree-er has plenty of intellectual firepower on board and, if you should require it, will deliver whatever you need. However, you need to ask him or her for it. Explicitly. Otherwise, the Intelligent Agree-er will cheerfully accede to whatever value proposition is on the table, only making the conversation hit pause if someone says something so egregiously dangerous that the entire project may well combust instantly.
    How to position the Intelligent Agree-er: assign the most challenging section of your grant or publication to him or her, as long as this task accords with the Intelligent Agree-ers’s core expertise.

2. The Control Freak.
    The Control Freak sounds like a good team member, in theory. However, he or she is neurotic to the bone—one of the traits that team members find more difficult than angry, manipulative, or depressed team mates (Klein, Lim and Saltz et al., 2004). Your average Control Freak, unfortunately, is far from conscientious and seldom volunteers to take on any work other than what you or other members have already assigned to him or her. Instead, your Control Freak labors beneath what Carol S. Dweck (2006) refers to as a fixed mindset. Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that skill is somehow a congenital trait and, if you were going to be masterful at [fill in the blank], you would have precociously exhibited this mastery during your childhood and never become fazed at any task involving this mastery, no matter how challenging. To make matters worse, the Control Freak believes that everyone requires micro-managing, as he or she believes that even if you exited the birth canal, somehow fully equipped to write the entire Specific Aims section of an NIH R01 grant, you’re probably going to screw things up unless the Control Freak sees everything you’ve done. Unfortunately, the Control Freak will never actually do more than fiddle with the occasional full-stop or apostrophe.
    How to handle the Control Freak: Optimally, try to avoid working with a Control Freak. If you find yourself lumbered with one, pray that your Control Freak is at least statistically literate or put the Control Freak in charge of obtaining an unassailable statistical analysis. Be sure to hound the Control Freak regularly about the accuracy and questionable decision to perform a regression analysis or use Spearman’s or Pearson’s, as this tactic ensures the Control Freak remains preoccupied with a task that he or she finds overwhelming.

3. The Work Horse. If you’re fortunate enough to land a Work Horse for your team, utter a prayer of thanks, even if you’re a devout atheist. The Work Horse will present your team with a Gantt Chart of detailed tasks, likely with his or her name assigned to 90% of them. If someone further up the chain of production melts down and fails to deliver, the Work Horse will cheerfully step in—and deliver accurately, admirably, and, looming deadlines notwithstanding, slightly early. If your team requires the Work Horse to perform some task you’d ordinarily assign to the lowest-ranking member, the Work Horse will gladly tackle it.
    How to manage a Work Horse: Stay out of the way. Keep the Work Horse apprised of all the moving parts to your project and never feel awkward about asking that he or she step in at the eleventh hour. But avoid making the Work Horse feel she or he is the only force responsible for moving the project along. And, as the Work Horse seldom sees that even he or she can get tired, burnt out, overextended, or ill, be proactive in restricting just how many tasks the Work Horse shoulders, especially simultaneously.

4. The Free-Rider. More socially agreeable than the Control Freak, the Free-Rider excels at pats on the back and cries of “Great job!” while doing as little actual work as possible. In fact, the Free-Rider may well regard this cheering-from-the-sidelines as legitimate and valuable work. Worse, the Free-Rider may be as intellectually lazy as he or she is averse to actual work and thus possesses almost no relevant strengths that enable the Free-Rider to complete, let alone complete accurately, any task you assign to one. The one skill Free-Riders possess: identifying Work Horses. They otherwise will avoid work as though it were a contagious disease. In particularly dicey scenarios, the Free-Rider volunteers to perform tasks which he or she has no intention of actually beginning, expecting that the other team members will swoop in and complete the Free-Rider’s assigned tasks, once the team discovers no work has actually been performed or completed on them.
    How to deal with a Free-Rider: Spot the Free-Rider as early as possible. If you can, terminate their contract or working arrangements with your team or lab. If you cannot, try to pass him or her off to another team. Or, if your lab faces budget cuts, ensure the Free-Rider is first in line to become redundant.

5. The Master Delegator. This species is the most lethal to teams, particularly in leadership positions. The Master Delegator will initially seem fantastically resourceful at passing along a flurry of grant and publication opportunities—Funding Award and program announcements—so numerous that they could keep an army of skilled researchers and writers occupied for the coming decade. Moreover, the Master Delegator has a second, more deleterious flaw. He or she will request that you work on projects, will do nothing with whatever the team (or, more accurately, its Work Horse) delivers early, and then will delegate its completion to someone else at the last minute. The Master Delegator will also go to spectacular lengths to avoid actually doing anything, including deleting a file or uploading a grant submission. The Master Delegator’s lone aim at work appears to be doing as little as possible whilst claiming credit for virtually everything. If you’ve failed to catch the Master Delegator claiming total responsibility for that bit of brilliant improvising you performed in a pinch, just ask your other team members. You’ll discover that he or she has already laid claim to your hard work.
    How to deal with the Master Delegator: Even in a leadership role, the Master Delegator invariably gives him- or herself sufficient rope to auto-asphyxiate. Agree to tackle a project with the Master Delegator but put him or her in a position where the Master Delegator will be clearly responsible for the bits that have gone missing in action. If you discover a burgeoning Master Delegator on your team, put him or her in charge of the lowest priority and most menial of tasks. Then prepare to act like a Control Freak, checking in daily or even hourly to ensure that the Master Delegator gets the assigned work finished. If the Master Delegator fails to deliver, assign still lower-ranking tasks and request that multiple team members pretend to be Control Freaks in overseeing the work to be completed. If these tactics fail to convert your Master Delegator into less of a dead weight, follow the instructions for handling a Free-Rider, above.

Next, why lying to team members is an unfortunate necessity.


Dweck, Carol S. Mind Set: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

Klein KJ, Lim B-C, Saltz JL, Mayer DM. How do they get there? An examination of the antecedents of centrality in team networks. Academy of Management Journal. 2004;47(6):952-963.