Hold-ups and Holding Up at the Other End

March 15, 2021
Eric Postal, MD

If things seem inequitable, take a step back for evaluation.

There’s a big item to carry, and you’re not doing it on your own. Maybe it’s too heavy, or just big and clunky. Something like a professional-grade ladder or a couch. You’ve got the front end, and your helper is bringing up the rear.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve got your back to him and not a word needs to be said: You know when he’s doing his fair share of the work because you can feel it. Especially if he was doing his half before, and now your part of the burden gets heavier (or lighter, if his efforts increase). Or from the get-go, if the heft at your end seems out-of-whack to your expectations.

I’ve had more than a few occasions to think of this phenomenon in venues other than physical labor. If one spends enough time at a shared task, one develops a sense of whether team-efforts are evenly/fairly distributed. If you’ve ever had a shared worklist in radiology, you’ll know what I’m talking about…and, hopefully, your workplaces had some sort of mechanism to reward productivity. Or, at least weed out extreme slackers.

Some tasks, however, aren’t so readily quantified and policed. For example, I’ve recently been trying to refinance my mortgage. As interest rates have fluctuated and opportunities have come and gone, I’ve pursued refinancing with three different companies.

At times, it’s been a breeze; things move along nicely, and the refi people have been very helpful and supportive. While I’ve certainly had to do my part of the “lifting” by gathering various documents, filling out forms, etc., I’ve almost always had the sense that the other side was properly hefting their end of the metaphorical sofa…thus, earning the considerable sums they will reap from my refi.

A recent glaring exception has been one of the “experts” (does anybody else find it irksomely self-aggrandizing when businesses give their bottom-rung employees such highfaluting titles?) on my case. Over a course of weeks, the individual has repeatedly had issues with this document or that one, been unable to explain what she needed from me to correct issues, announced intentions to consult her superiors (then not done so), and/or failed to reply to my messages entirely.

Prior to these episodes, she seemed capable of getting things done, so incompetence was unlikely. Instead, I’ve had a growing sense that she’s been lowering her end of the sofa…even digging her heels into the floor to work against my efforts at carrying it forward.

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I couldn’t tell you why. Sometimes, when I’m working on a project with a partner who becomes less helpful or a downright hindrance, it’s worth my while to try figuring them out. Have they stopped believing in the project? Do they think there’s a better way to go about it? Did I say or do something to offend? Or is there something unrelated that’s weighing on them?

Someone I don’t know, and will likely never deal with again, such as the refi “expert,” doesn’t provide me with a whole lot of incentive for such investigations. I need her to get this one thing done, and that’s it. If she can’t make that happen—worse, if she’s trying to prevent it from happening—my best move is to get her out of the picture. Find a replacement, if possible. In this case, that meant reaching out to the superior she kept claiming she was going to consult, so he could either set her straight, assign someone else to my case, or take it over himself.

That’s not always an option. If my partner is a friend I want to keep, a relative I’m going to keep on seeing, or a long-term member of my rad group, it’s worth making extra efforts to diagnose and repair the situation. Also if the other party is crucial to the task at hand, having skills, connections, or resources that simply cannot be replaced.

Even in those circumstances, I can’t think of too many times I’ve found myself “locked in” to an untenably-lopsided situation…because the other guy isn’t the only one who can be removed/replaced. I pretty much never commit myself to a point where I completely lose the ability to say, “That’s it; I’m out.”

Not in so few words, of course, barring extreme circumstances. There are any number of ways to extract yourself diplomatically. Express your offer/intention to step aside decently, and the other party might surprise you by shaping up immediately. Folks tend to be more powerfully motivated by fear of loss (you, as an ally) than they are by hope for gain (getting the project done without doing their share of the work).

Of course, if you’re working on a project in the first place, chances are you saw value in it, and bailing out might not be your preferred solution. Again, a diplomatic approach is usually going to give you the best results. So, for instance, do not bluntly accuse the other guy of failing to do his fair share. Even if it seems awfully likely that he’s dogging it, calling him out will crank things up multiple adversarial notches, rather than suddenly shame him into doing better.

My suggestion: Call for a time-out. Put down the sofa (that is, set the task aside), and try to get a sense of your partner’s mindset. Med school teaches some useful tools for this purpose: Ask open-ended questions, actively listen, emphasize team-oriented terms (“We” instead of “you” or “me”), etc. Probe for a reason why he’s doing less than he should (“Does it seem like we should be doing better than this?”) Invite him to share notions of how things might be fixed (“Are we going about this the best way?”).

Even before getting to that point, allow yourself a healthy chunk of time to think the situation over. Re-examine how you sensed an inequity of effort, and really search for other explanations for it. Always consider the possibility that you’re just bringing more to the table than your partner is. If you’re a superstar and he’s a mere mortal, maybe you shouldn’t be expecting him to perform at your level.

Follow Editorial Board member Eric Postal, M.D., on Twitter @EricPostal_MD.