Do You Allow the Squeaky Wheel Too Much Squeak?

March 4, 2018
Paul LaRue

Picture the following scenario:

An employee dislikes a situation and complains to one of his or her leaders. That leader goes to other party and asks only enough to confirm that the first story is somewhat true, then orders that party to do such and such an action to correct.

The interaction then leaves that other party frustrated that their side of the story is not heard or discounted because of the weight of the first person to bring a relative issue up. Instances like this tend to originate from people who are "squeaky wheels," looking to gain favor, attention, and outcomes to their liking. Incidents like this give credibility to the old and true Proverb:

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” – King Solomon

As leaders we can be quick and decisive to address issues. Yet when those issues arise from the squeaky wheels, we may have tendencies to cater to their whims for various reasons, such as:

  • We don’t want to confront them
  • They disrupt and we want things to quiet down
  • They have the wool pulled over our eyes
  • They cast perceived urgencies
  • They challenge our leadership so we bow to their pressure

Do you allow squeaky wheels to squeak in your ear too much? Do they have your ear because they squeak too much? Do non-squeaky wheels get the same attention? Do we enable squeaky wheels to squeak louder, and squelch those who don’t make noise but have otherwise legitimate and pressing needs?

Squeaky wheel employees distort the Pareto rule (80/20 rule) by making them the top one percent and claiming more than their share of our attention. For example, Jeffrey A. Fox says we should be spending 90% of our time with our best employees. A squeaky wheel may not be our best or even top 20% performer, but absorbs more than 20% of our attention. This disproportionate hijacking of time and resources allows the squeaky wheel to continue his or her behavior and take away from others in need.

Dealing with squeaky wheels is a balancing act. There are two approaches that must be used to prevent them from disrupting your team and organization.

First, understand who the squeaky wheel is. Their behavior may be a result of many variables both good and bad, such as:

  • Low esteem
  • Mistrust
  • Plea for help
  • Covering for impropriety
  • Sucking up
  • Making them look better than others
  • Insecurity in their job

Once the squeaky wheel is understood, then the following actions can be implemented:

  • Set clear behavioral expectations
  • Ask questions; always get the 360-degree facts
  • Give support
  • Listen better; ask probing questions
  • Be objective and take yourself out of the equation
  • Take corrective action if behavior gets abused or disruptive
  • Keep the focus balanced on other staff 

When squeaky wheels knows what is expected, they tend to quiet down. As with any behavior, when the desired result is accomplished then the behavior continues. When squeaky wheels' real needs are met without lending credibility to their disruption, they change course and learn to work with the new expectations. And when they have bad motives, knowing that their behavior will not generate their preferred response will most likely box them in and force change, especially if you are honest with them and work towards a better expectation of behavior.

Don’t let the squeaky wheel(s) in your organization drive you crazy. Meet their needs and set boundaries to create a more supportive culture for all.

Scripture taken from the English Standard Version, Proverbs 18:17

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Paul LaRue is the creator of The UPwards Leader and Instigator for Lead Change Group. His background in senior leadership, strategic planning, culture change, and people and organizational development gives him unique insight into the workings of successful organizations. Paul has given speeches and training sessions for many public and private entities and stresses the virtue of a culture that centers around core values and character in leadership.

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