Sunday, May 08, 2022

Must everyone contribute to a group effort?

What, if anything, should you do if some members of a group you belong to don’t contribute to an effort but never say why? It is a question that is facing a longtime reader from North Carolina we’re calling Bill.


Bill wrote me about what he describes as a “minor aggravation” that he doesn’t believe rises to the level of an ethical dilemma, but one that bothers him nonetheless. After joining a national support group for those living with a particular medical condition, the leader of the group drafted Bill to be one of his advisers.


As time went by, Bill appreciated “what a good and competent guy” the leader was. Bill believed that the other seven advisers from around the country might want to join him in showing some sort of appreciation to their leader.


“I emailed a suggestion for a custom-designed T-shirt, but said I was open to any other suggestions,” wrote Bill. All but two of the other advisers responded that they were supportive of the T-shirt idea and were willing to contribute just shy of $5 each for the shirt to be made. “I kept each of them informed and sought their input as the design developed.”


After the leader received the T-shirt, he was “enormously appreciative,” Bill writes, and he thanked all the advisers at the next Zoom session. “He wore the shirt and stood up so that all could see it.”


Bill was aggravated, however, that the two “quiet advisers” not only didn’t contribute to the T-shirt, but never even bothered to acknowledge or respond to his emails soliciting ideas for a gift.


“My ‘financial loss’ is of no consequence,” wrote Bill, “but I am tempted to ask them why they never weighed in at least.” Bill acknowledges that “it’s probably best to let sleeping dogs lie,” but he wrote to ask me what I believe is the right thing to do.


It may be aggravating, but if the emails that went around asked for voluntary contributions, then Bill is indeed right to let sleeping dogs lie. None of us ever know what another’s situation is, and while contributing $5 may seem like very little to one person, that might not be the case for everyone. If Bill wanted to avoid being left to wonder why the two didn’t respond in any way, he could have presented the idea for the T-shirt but indicated that he would only move forward if everyone supported the idea. If it was more important to the majority of the advisers to recognize their leader than to have unanimity, they did the right thing by moving ahead with the gift that they could afford from the contributions they did receive.


That doesn’t let the two silent advisers entirely off the hook. While they had no obligation to contribute to the gift, when asked about the idea for the gift, the right thing would have been for them to respond one way or another. If they had at least responded, Bill would have known it wasn’t the idea of the T-shirt itself that they had an issue with. Regardless, Bill’s goal of doing something to recognize their leader was accomplished, and that in itself should spark at least a small amount of joy for Bill.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


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