Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

When You Are the Weakest Link

Full chambers 1908 swivel 2 copy

Image: Chain-Swivel Illustration from Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language (1908)

While sitting in a university committee that was only tangentially related to the work I do everyday, I asked myself, “What am I doing here?”

I had nothing helpful to ask or add and the conversation was highly technical. I felt out of place and strangely incompetent. As others around the table talked with great passion and animation, I pondered how I could gracefully get myself off this committee’s roster. “This is awful and painful,” I said to myself.

A week later, a sense of profound incompetence returned as I accompanied my daughter for a spring prison-break experience at an Escape Room in Nashville. I began the adventure with a fair sense of confidence and optimism. I imagined using my reasoning and negotiation skills to break my team free from a pretend prison in fewer than the 60 minutes we were allotted. I would save the day — because I do so love saving the day. As our group was combined with another family, it became obvious that only a few of us actually were old enough to have high-school diplomas. I felt a weighty sense of obligation. “Looks like I will have to do the heavy lifting,” I thought to myself as we were escorted into our cells.

As the prison bars clanked to a close, I sprang into action. My first contribution was immediate and I proudly displayed a clue I found by applying my superior investigation skills. Then I tied a complicated knot that was required to complete the next assignment. Mission accomplished; I was on fire!

And then, for the next 58 minutes, I offered nothing of value. Every suggestion was a dead end that simply set the team back. Apparently my mind is not made for cracking codes, solving puzzles, or finding hints inside journals with bad handwriting. It quickly became clear that I would be most helpful if I shut up and started taking orders from people who were several decades younger than me. So I did.

We ended our hour together one clue shy of victory, but we were assured, “This is definitely the hardest challenge here.” People in Nashville are very nice.

Feeling defeated after the experience, I reflected on a book I read on the plane ride to Nashville: Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting & Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace. Authors Robert M. Galford, Bob Frisch, and Cary Greene assert that committees and project teams are most effective when they are populated with people who can serve in one of four roles that start with W:

  • Worker: someone who is there to get things done.
  • Wisdom: a person who has smart ideas or perspectives to share.
  • Wealth: a person with resources to contribute.
  • Window dressing: someone whose participation increases the group’s status.

As I reflected on the Escape Room adventure, its parallels with that uncomfortable experience on the campus committee became obvious. In both settings, I was playing the role of a fifth and undesirable W: I was the Weakest Link.

Noting my sense of despondency, my highly logical and clue-savvy daughter encouraged me to focus on what I did right during our pretend-prison experience. So, as a public service to those of you who may one day find that you are the weakest link in a team or group, I offer you the following advice:

  • Give ideas, but don’t insist they be pursued. My daughter noted that none of my ideas were correct or even helpful, but they did provide the group with a number of possibilities to reject. “We knew that if you suggested something, we should almost do the opposite,” she helpfully explained.
  • Stay out of the way. During the course of our lives, we will be inserted into situations for which we are unprepared, unqualified, or inferior. Rather than trying to demonstrate our value, it sometimes makes sense to keep quiet and let others take charge of the situation.
  • Recognize the people who figure things out. Breaking out of fake prison, like leading a complex project team or a politically charged committee, requires emotional energy. Expressing appreciation to those doing the heavy lifting gives them the energy to keep going.
  • Whenever possible, attempt to extricate yourself. It is psychologically taxing to be the loser member of a group. Offer a gracious apology and move on. Most everyone will be happy and relieved.

Our contributions to any endeavor will always be variable, but when we know our participation is slowing things down or mucking things up, we can earn points by moving on. It is always better to be the one who leaves voluntarily than the one whom everyone has to work around.

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