Squeaky Wheels: Troublemakers or Drivers of Change?

“The squeaky wheel doesn’t always get greased; sometimes it gets replaced.” — John Peers, American humor writer.

Squeaky Wheels: Troublemakers or Drivers of Change? by Laura Stack #productivityWe’ve all heard the old adage that goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It seems to make imminent sense: he who makes the most noise gets the most attention. This works well when it comes to customer service, which is why the bravest among us have long made our voices heard when it comes to getting special deals and better treatment.

You’ve probably seen squeaky wheels in action in the workplace, too. Often, those willing to step forward and ask for what they want—or simply to complain—get the lion’s share of attention from the leadership. Indeed, no organization can grow without innovators willing to ask for what they need and stand up for what they believe in. As a leader, there will likely be times when you need to squeak up, and others when people should squeak at you. However, squeakiness is a double-edged tool, one that can cut you if not handled with great care.

The Personal Side

1. Choose your battles. If you must draw attention to yourself, do so only about things that really matter, typically those impacting the bottom line. Complaining because your department uses 20# bond in the copy machines instead of your preferred 25# is silly, unless 20# jams up the copy machine and damages your team’s efficiency. On the other hand, asking the department to provide more than one printer for the entire floor makes sense, as it will certainly improve productivity. Similarly, if you have an idea you think will make or save the company a bundle, shine it up and step forward with it.

2. Make a professional case. Whatever your issue, don’t come across as cranky, defensive, or amateurish. Submit a proposal outlining what you need or suggest, describing how it will increase productivity for you and your team (or ideally for the whole organization).

3. Don’t be a pest. Submit your proposal to the appropriate person and wait. If you hear nothing after a decent interval—say, a couple of weeks—ask for a decision. Or use the “presumptive close,”¬ indicating if you don’t hear back by (x) date, you’ll assume it’s okay to move forward on (y).

4. Never go over your manager’s head. If you don’t get the answer you want, copying in your manager’s boss is a power play and represents a super-loud squeak. It makes your manager look bad, and it especially makes you look bad. This may get you reassigned instantly. Instead, devise a workaround or a go-around with your team.

The Leadership Side

You’ll receive your share of squeaks from your team members. If someone submits a good idea or valid request you can’t fulfill at your level, pass it up the line. If it’s something you can do, and it’s a good idea, then do it. Keep these things in mind:

1. Consider the source. Is the “wheel” constantly squeaky? Unless the individual acts as representative for the whole team, don’t let them take up too much of your time. Tell them to make do if they start making unreasonable requests.

2. Use a suggestion forum. This may sound old-fashioned, but it works for introverts and for shy people who don’t want to seem like squeaky wheels. They can drop off their complaints or suggestions anonymously.

3. Filter the squeaks. Empower your team to handle the routine issues from internal and external customers. Give them guidelines on what needs to go to you for review. That way, only serious items will be escalated, and you don’t have to get involved with trivial issues.

The Wheel and the Nail

Depending on what it’s making noise about, a “squeaky wheel” in the workplace may be a driver of change…or just a troublemaker. As a leader, it’s worth listening to find out which, so you can take appropriate action. Legitimate complaints and ideas are one thing—bellyaching and rabble-rousing are another. But take care here: don’t replace someone just because his or her ideas make you uncomfortable. E = mc2 made a lot of people uncomfortable when Einstein first proposed it, but it’s now one of the foundations of modern physics, and drives a significant portion of our industry (especially electronics and nuclear power).

Before you start squeaking, make sure you choose a topic worth making noise about, and present it carefully. Be especially cautious in a conservative organization, where the C-suite hates to see any nail sticking out higher than the others…or, no matter how legitimate your squeak, you may become intimately acquainted with Mr. Hammer.

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