Most of us know the cliché, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” meaning that the loudest people gain the most attention.  The complaining shopper earns free credit at a department store.  The crying sibling gets more sympathy from her parents.  The co-worker with the best boasting skills receives the promotion.

Well I say, throw away your oil can.  And if you can’t fix the squeaky wheel, well, it’s time to toss it out too.

Here’s how the professionals do it

Years ago, I worked with a software engineer who, based on the opinion of all his peers, was an okay programmer – not great, but not bad.  But he’d been with the company for a long time, and he felt it was his time to get promoted.  He boasted for literally months, talking to his manager about how he could take over the lead development position.  He became the “I can do it” Squeaky Wheel.  Whereas other good in-house candidates worked harder and smarter, had better resumes, and in general, gave realistic expectations on what the team could produce, the Squeaky Wheel talked himself up so much that he gained the lead spot.

You might be thinking, there’s nothing wrong with giving a guy a chance to push his limits. I certainly have no problem with that, but I do have a problem with accountability.  Even after the Squeaky Wheel failed to deliver as lead developer, even after he outright lied about expectations and blamed co-workers for his own incompetence, he simply buffed himself up, offering new reams of self-confidence and boasting, and was given even bigger projects to oversee.   He kept that position for years, dragging down team morale and promising features to customers the team could never deliver.

This might feel like a case of bad decision making at the top, but consider this – most teammates chose to let the Squeaky Wheel get away with his behavior.  In team meetings, most teammates let his outlandish statements and contradictions just flow by, unchecked.  At first, he was seen as harmless and opinionated, later as a “boss” that you shouldn’t contradict.  Even when it was obvious to everyone that he had no idea what he was talking about, he’d pull out his bragging skills and promise something he couldn’t deliver.  Everyone, from top to bottom, wanted to believe the Squeaky Wheel because he represented a (very loud) hope things would get unrealistically better.  Not surprising, things only got worse.

The sad part is, this guy could have been much more than a Squeaky Wheel.  On the occasion where someone called him on his unrealistic expectations, he re-evaluated his opinions.  He came up with unique solutions.  If he had been forced to listen, he would have been able to grow, and in growing, might have became the excellent lead developer he always wanted to be.

My point is, it’s not only a manager’s job to see past Squeaky Wheel, but yours as well.  You have an obligation to stop oiling the Squeaky Wheels on your teams.  You have to be thoughtful and challenge ideas when appropriate.  You must not reward Squeaky Wheel behavior by seeing boasters as harmless.  The only way you can have a good team is to evaluate and respect all opinions on the team in the pursuit of finding the best solution, not the loudest.

-Deborah Fike

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