Who’s pulling the rope?

April 28, 2017
Eric Postal, MD

It takes effort from all team members to achieve and maintain success.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve played “tug of war” in my life. I might need both hands to tally the number of times I’ve watched others do it. In the abstract, I’ve thought about it considerably more frequently. It strikes me as one of the purest “team” efforts. Unlike most athletic competitions in which, yes, the team is working in common cause, but at any given juncture the focus is on one or two individual members. If a quarterback screws up a crucial play in a football-game, everyone knows who blew it. If a baseballer grand-slams in the bottom of the ninth and produces a come-from-behind victory, he’s the hero of the day. With a group of people pulling on a rope, though, it’s iffier determining who was contributing what percentage of the effort. That doesn’t stop people from trying. In fact, I’ve noticed that (not just in tug-o-war), the more effort someone believes he’s putting in, the more liable he is to be sizing up what his teammates are doing. Often as not, finding fault with it. It’s hardly surprising. A member who doesn’t much care about his team’s success, and puts in substantially less than his full effort, typically cares even less about what others on the team are doing. Someone giving his all will be a lot more attuned to the possibility of being sandbagged by others who are less committed, and might well consider it a personal offense. As mentioned above, though, it’s not so easy to figure out who was goldbricking, unless they’re blatant about it (letting go of the rope with a smirk, for instance). A determined soul might scrutinize teammates as to their posture, quality, and volume of effortful vocalizations, or markings on their hands when all is said and done. What seems to escape notice of such self-appointed QA types is there’s not much probable payoff for their ministrations. That is, if you’ve got a slacker for a teammate, and you call them out on it-even with solid evidence to support your accusations-how likely is it that he’s going to stop being a slacker? What leverage do you have to motivate him? Meanwhile, the time and trouble spent policing your team is coming from somewhere, maybe even taking a couple of percentage-points away from your own efforts to contribute. Whittling away at morale (yours, and/or that of the teammates who know you’re sizing them up). Fortunately, in our field we’re more multifaceted and objectively-measurable than folks collectively pulling on a rope. Even if you eschew RVUs and bean-counting, it’s pretty clear when someone is blatantly letting others carry his weight. And, unlike in tug-o-war, there are remediating options other than browbeating someone or kicking him off your team. Or, at least, there should be. If an excessively laissez-faire atmosphere is maintained, the hardest workers/players might get the impression that nothing is being done to nudge others on the team up toward their level. And/or that nothing is being done to reward, compensate, encourage, etc., them for routinely bringing their A-game while others are not. All of this might result in the strongest members of the team shrugging, and stop trying so hard…or, looking for a more competitive team to join. Ultimately, one might see such former valuable-asset teammates pulling on the other end of the rope. 

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