this post originally appeared in Management 3.0

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease Terminated!


leadership coaching What causes an apothegm like “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” to be true? And why does it take on anthropomorphic styles in leadership and teams.

In this article I shall explore the harm that happens to people on teams from this belief and suggest an alternative path that purges the squeaky wheel and reinforces the ones that work.

What does “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” mean, in terms of people. The interpretation is that in order to be noticed, retain resources, move up in the company, to receive any recognition at all, a person must make noise and complain or squeak.

This creates an opposite effect where those who are quiet, reserved, and believe that they will be noticed on their merit and hard work alone – feel that they are not noticed, because they are not squeaking – hence “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and the “silent wheel goes uncared for and unnoticed” UNTIL they themselves squeak. Sound familiar? Take a moment and think about your organization, team, you – who gets noticed? Who causes reactions within the team? Where is the focus, resources, planning, time, and energy being spent? On the squeaky wheels, or the silent wheels?

The squeaky wheels are operating from the cultural experience of recognizing that those who speak up and complain are the ones who get the rewards, and why shouldn’t they? The squeaky wheels get the attention and things change for them. Change is caused because leaders do not want to hear the squeaking, in turn they give them what they want, the grease, which reinforces the behavior. So they squeak more and get more attention, squeak more and get more resources, continually growing in their behavior until it becomes habituated.

Creating a team of squeaky wheels, leadership that is constantly shifting policies and procedures, and a polarizing culture of people who complain about how much they hate their job and the negative culture your organization, team, and people display!

It is time to CUT OFF THE GREASE throw out the wheels that squeak! And focus on the people/ wheels that are working without complaints; those that are completing projects and doing great work.

Imagine your team split into three parts as shown below;

Talent Champions



Squeaky Wheels


The three sections are not equal. Many organizations have the majority of their people in the undecided middle, with a small portion of the Talent Champions, and a smaller portion (although more vocal) in the complainers portion.

Talent Champion – People who get things done, hard working dedicated group that support decisions made and produce the highest quality work. Additionally the talent champions are easy to work with and illustrate integrity, honor, and are seen as hard working by their co-workers.

Undecided – People in the middle.

Complainers – These are your squeaky wheels. Complainers feel that the only way to be recognized is to complain. They tend to find fault with many decisions, ideas, policies and procedures. Complainers can be easy to work with and often produce high quality work. Complainers can have integrity, honor and be seen as hard working by their co-workers.

The challenge for management and leadership is how to capture those undecided, the majority of the people who go un-noticed. This is why you need to grease the Talent Champions.

Let’s grease the squeaky wheel, and focus our attention on those Complainers.


Talent Champions Undecided Complainers

Squeaky Wheels


When the focus and attention is on complaints, the undecided people become complainers. The undecided people want to be noticed. Once they see that the cultural acceptance of complaining receives funding, training, work breaks and attention of leadership. The undecided go the way of squeaky wheels, increasing the population of complainers.

This also has an effect on your champions.

Creating a cultural question of “why are we continuing to put in our efforts, when the complainer gets all the attention?” shifting the scale greater towards the complainer culture. As this continues eventually a tipping point is reached and the organization loses talent and creates a deeply rooted complaint based culture.

Because the power was given to those who squeaked the loudest – the cultural shift caused people to take the only option for recognition – Complaining!

The antithesis of this is focusing on Talent. Supplying training, funding, recognition, and taking ideas and feedback from the people who are Talent Champions. This has the same effect upon the undecided group, except they now notice that talent and success are what is rewarded and recognized. The undecided move towards the talent camp and become better at what they do. As this continues eventually a tipping point is reached and the organization gains talent and increases retention, production, profit, and morale creating a culture of success, because the focus is placed on talent.


Talent Champions Undecided Complainers

Squeaky Wheels


The complainer eventually suffocates from the lack of air time and either ceases to complain, or leaves the organization to complain somewhere else.

In order for you to focus on the talent champions find those who are doing what works, look for the bright spots within the team.

Stop giving the squeaky wheels grease.

Focus on the talent that is in your team.

Then you will see the results you seek!



Michael Cardus is create-learning

image by banoootah_qtr