“A ‘squeaky wheel’ isn’t the highest priority project. It’s the loudest or most noticed. In many organizations, it gets the grease, while projects with greatest potential to bring about business results get delayed or set aside.”

This quote comes from the book Everything’s A Project, which I reviewed in a recent post. And it’s playing like a mantra in my thoughts.

We focus on squeaky wheels because they are irritating, not because they are important. We want the irritation to go away.

Here are three different types of squeaky wheels that can derail a business, along with thoughts on how to eliminate the noise:

1. A “side” project with a strident cheerleader

This project is someone’s beloved pet. The advocate is passionate about it to the point of being blinded. Higher priorities are calling for your time, attention, and resources. As a leader, it’s your job to make sure employees are focused on the most important goals. Good leaders redirect the cheerleader’s enthusiasm into the highest priority activities without cutting down the person or his/her original passion. Some forward-thinking companies let employees spend up to 20 percent of their time on side endeavors. This gives workers a creative outlet, lets them recharge, and helps them feel supported, so they can give you 100 percent of their focus and energy when it’s time to work on mission-critical tasks.

2. “Noisy” customers

They want you to jump at their beck and call. They want their deliverables yesterday, instead of giving you reasonable lead time. They nit-pick each invoice and insist all their suppliers accept 90-day payment terms (instead of reimbursing more promptly). And though they squawk a lot and suck away your energy, they account for a very small fraction of your company’s income. Your balance sheet wouldn’t really suffer if they stopped purchasing from you. Fire them, and plan a celebration with your staff.

3. High maintenance employees

These come in many varieties. Here are some symptoms: you spend a disproportionate amount of your time giving them step-by-step instructions on how to complete tasks, because they can’t seem to look up information on their own. Or you spend half your day behind a closed door listening to complaints either from or about the high-maintenance employee. Or the worker seems to be at the center of every conflict or drama in your department. You’ve provided performance feedback, but the employee keeps delivering the same set of mistakes or poor behaviors. If you’ve imparted the “shape up or ship out” message, make sure you follow up on the “ship out” part. If you haven’t yet confronted the employee, what’s your excuse? Here are 13 bad ones.

Greasing a squeaky wheel may provide temporary relief, but it doesn’t cure a headache. Take the long view. Is the project, customer or employee good for your business—or simply sapping your resources?

Leigh Steere
Co-founder, Managing People Better, LLC—a management research firm/think tank. Professional kettle-stirrer. Writer. Curriculum developer. Connect with Leigh on her LeadChange profile, website, or Twitter and check out the Managing People Better assessment where you can get some feedback on your management style and help with a research project.
Leigh Steere