compassion in teamwork?

Part 2 of teamwork, or lack thereof

I was interviewed by a therapist a few months back for some program. (Not for therapy, but I’ll get there.) She was a genteel lady who spoke as if soothing a newborn, yet I could sense iron will beneath that demeanour. And that intimidated me. I felt that she could see the weaknesses of my being: when her gaze penetrated me, I found myself wringing my hands under the table.

We started with the typical questions. Tell me one interesting fact about yourself. How did you become interested in psychology? What are your career goals? The two other interviewees flanking me answered with practised ease: well, I’ve always been interested in counselling…

Everything was manageable up to the pièce de résistance. Having sat silently beside her until then, her assistant peered at his notes as he recited the question.

I'm sure all of you have had to work in teams in the course of your study. Can you share one instance where you had a teammate who did not participate as much as you would have liked, and what you did in response?

Unsurprisingly, nobody had issues answering. We shared our misadventures with our own flair. I started with an academic definition of social loafing, which her assistant noted with some alarm; someone detailed a more placative approach, and the other had a heartwarming ending to their story. But the details were irrelevant: deconstructed, our stories were identical. There is a slacker, there is retaliation, and perhaps reconciliation.

I thought the interview would end following our earnest sharing. But I was wrong. She leaned forward, her body language incongruent with the killer blow she was about to deliver.

What are your thoughts about… showing compassion to these people? 

Just like that, I was ensnared.

My mind was racing. I’d never encountered a question like that before. Whilst I spluttered trying to parse together a coherent response in real-time, my psyche was going through a saga of civil war. Tons of if-then sequences, buts, and rebuttals to those buts battled each other.

Should slackers be shown compassion? Do they deserve compassion? Who’s to say who deserves what? Isn’t it right to show compassion to all, for better or for worse? Everyone’s bound to make mistakes, and the least we could do is be understanding, right? Isn’t that what I’d want from others – empathy in difficult times? But what about situations where someone leeches off the team the whole term with a shitty work ethic? And what if it happens most of the time? What about the others left shouldering the burden of work then?

What about me?

My first instinct was to reject the notion of compassion. Being primed with the thought of slackers already brought forth ugly memories from the recesses of my mind. To further expect me to swallow that resentment and extend loving acceptance to those who brought me suffering? If received offhandedly, the question could even be construed as an insult to those who actually put in effort (or, if I dare say, one could “take umbrage” at the statement). We bear the brunt of the work, they get the grade we worked for with minimal contribution, and we still have to extend compassion to them? Am I supposed to benevolently and passively endure as people take advantage of me for the rest of my life? To accept such an arrangement would be absurd. I can’t help but bitterly wonder if graders consider our feelings when we raise such instances of injustice only to hear “it’s just like that; get used to it”.

I should qualify my statements with a disclaimer that I don’t think of myself as The Most Valued Contributor Of All Time. I have done less than what I could potentially do, once in a while, albeit never regularly. Nevertheless, I continue to find myself appalled when I repeatedly encounter instances where people simply do not seem to care. They’re not even pretending to try. And others become notorious for making loafing a habit and their defining characteristic. I may not have the complete picture – thing is, nobody ever does – but I sure as hell can tell when you’re making an effort.

I’d be happy to extend compassion to everyone if it meant that loafers would actually start pulling their weight in projects, except I don’t recall that working out. Pragmatically speaking, compassion is a lofty ideal only attainable to the enlightened who have unlimited patience and time. And in this pressure cooker of a society, we have neither to spare. I have neither to spare.

Why then, indeed, should we show slackers compassion?

I guess that her counterpoint was designed to be discovered within that internal tirade. Her argument was that with sufficient support and unconditional positive regard, anyone could be motivated to contribute. Keywords: anyone, unconditional. I must admit that this optimistic view doesn’t sit well with my assumptions of human nature, which tend to lean toward the direction of self-centredness. But that could very well be a distortion manifesting from my personal insecurities. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from group work, it’s that our expectations of others are projections of our expectations of ourselves. I demand from others as much as I demand from myself, and I inevitably find myself disappointed because I am chasing unattainable perfection. And expecting others to act in the way we want is maladaptive at worst and naive at best.

It’s easy to attribute this dysfunction to the environment. We exist in a system that pits people against each other, and where the default mode of exchange is transactional rather than relational. My corresponding preoccupation with equal contributions bleeds into everything I think about and do when it comes to work. And my self-centredness hurt me and the people around me in the process. I’d immediately dismissed compassion as a fruitless endeavour on the basis that it wasn’t tangibly productive because I think only in terms of results when it comes to this issue. In this view, people are only worth as much as they can contribute to the outcome – precisely what she was attempting to challenge when she presented us with that thorny question.

Of course, resentment at inequitable contributions is instinctive and natural. But we can choose to rise above those. At least theoretically. And it’s not a have to, as she reiterated – nobody is obligated to show compassion to another. But perhaps we would be better off doing so. In extending compassion to others, we could be doing the same for ourselves – something we often neglect in the pursuit of conventional success. In fact, we probably need this compassion more than ever during these difficult times. Still, I believe we can further advance the conversation by considering other layers of the issue, including distributive justice, and I look forward to encountering more nuanced takes in the future.