Small business: Why the squeaky wheel shouldn’t get the oil

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If you know the saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” then you’re probably already thinking of someone who’s the epitome of it.

The saying means that the one who complains the most (or the loudest) gets the most attention and focus. In business, it’s one of those customers and staff members who have a lot of negative comments but do very little to help your business improve.

We’ve all worked with that kind of person - they have limited talent and ability, and yet they still dare to use threats, intimidation, and loud, petty approaches to get what they want.

They make life hell for you and your good-meaning colleagues who simply want to do their job.

These “squeaky wheels” are difficult to please and work with, but because of their self-assertive “don’t mess with me” personality, people tend to fold and listen to them. No one wants to confront them because they’re afraid of them, they don’t want to be the next gossip target, or they simply don’t want to have to deal with all the noise (or in this case, the squeakiness).

Condoning these behaviours of complaints, threats, and gossip reward the negative people and reinforce to them to stay the same. If no one is telling them off, and they see that there are no repercussions to what they’re doing, why would they stop anyway?

The squeaky wheel always gets the oil. But in business, especially in small or emerging ones, rewarding this negativity by allowing or excusing it will put your business in a bad position.

As a business coach, here’s my advice: Never give the squeaky wheel oil. Or better yet, replace the wheel altogether.

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A squeaky wheel ruins culture and morale 


Negative influential persons ruin the culture of a business. We’ve all seen how predominant this issue is in the corporate world where companies are littered with toxic employees. But unfortunately, small businesses aren’t safe from them either.

In fact, the effects are even more damaging in a small business. Here are some ways that a negative person can impact workplace culture, and your business itself:

#1: Their negativity is contagious.

Picture a scenario where a negative employee starts backstabbing one of the high-performing employees, starting rumours and gossip that affect others’ perception of that good employee.

In an ideal world, no one will believe these made-up stories and comments and the high-performing staff will remain unbothered. But this isn’t an ideal world - the real world is not a very kind place.

We’ve all seen how this goes: the rumour will spread, people will start behaving differently around the good employee, and that employee’s self-esteem will take a hit too.

As much as positivity breeds positivity, negativity does the same thing, but stronger.

As much as it’s difficult to admit, humans are more hardwired for negativity than positivity. We tend to dwell on insults more than compliments and fixate on our mistakes. Psychologists call this the “negative bias”, a bias in which our brains are more receptive and sensitive to negative stimuli as opposed to positive stimuli.


And we all know that being negative is not a good attitude to have at work. We want a culture where people love their jobs and collaborate positively, to maximise productivity.

So the last thing you want is to have a negative person on your team who influences everyone else.

#2: They affect your employees’ health and wellbeing.

Following how toxic mindsets and behaviours are contagious, they also eventually affect the health of your employees, whether physically or mentally.

You’ll find more employees maximising their available sick leave, and with low morale, your employees will be lonely, burnt out, and even depressed.

This severely affects the productivity of your business, and more than that, it will just make your business a horrible one to work with and for. 

Your high-performing employees will start to underperform, and in situations where the cause is workplace culture, it really isn’t their fault.

Good health and wellbeing should be a priority of every business, so having someone who can trigger the opposite is detrimental for your small business.

#3: People start to leave.

Having bad culture and low morale in your small business will cause employee satisfaction, and therefore productivity, to drop. If this kind of culture persists, you’ll find your already-few staff members leaving one by one (or even in waves).

No business can afford to have high turnover rates, and yet some companies have rates that spike up to 30-40%.

If looking for replacements isn’t hard enough, consider the entire turnover process where the new employees need to be trained all over again.

And not to mention, finding replacements is costly for your business. According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, it costs around six to nine months of your former employee’s salary just to identify and onboard their replacement.

Imagine how multiple staff and managers leaving will harm your business and finances.

#4: Negative culture gives your brand a bad rep.

Unhappy ex-employees can leave bad reviews about their former companies on job-seeking websites. This will drive away potential recruits and even potential customers.

Additionally, if the morale is low in your business, this will reflect on your employees’ behaviours. This will lead to things like bad customer service and relations, which in turn will repel customers from doing business with you again and hurt your online reviews.

For a small business, building your brand and making a name for it is a crucial early step in ensuring that your business is in the right direction towards growth and success (hence why PR is important in every business).

So to have a bad reputation just as your business is emerging will set you many steps back. Some businesses don’t recover from these hits.

To counter all of this and make sure that your business is on the right track and is building a positive culture, you choose the right people to be part of your team.

In a previous blog, I talked in detail about how to find the right people for your business. I mentioned the main things you should consider when choosing new additions to your team and supporting and retaining them as part of your business. These include:

  • Having a culture of ownership and an owner mindset, where employees take ownership over the role, what they need to deliver and where the business is heading.
  • Identifying and nurturing potential leaders because of their skill, attitude, and performance, and not promoting someone into a leadership role just because they were in the company the longest.
  • Prioritising attitude over skill when recruiting new members of your team. Remember, hire for attitude, train for skill.
  • Investing in training your employees to improve their skills and align them with the values your business upholds.
  • Managing performance through measurable expectations and Key Performance Indicators.
  • Retaining staff by ensuring that you promote and propagate a positive culture in your business, and not the negative culture that the squeaky wheel tries to spread.

How to identify a ‘squeaky wheel’

The squeaky wheel in your business is not hard to find, but with how common it is to have one or more in a company, people tend to overlook their behaviour and treat it as normal.

Here are signs and traits of someone who is bad for culture that you shouldn’t turn a blind eye to:

#1: Alarming punctuality and attendance records

If your employee is constantly calling in sick (especially without proof that they were actually sick) and turning up late, chances are, they’re not very dedicated to their work. They’ll be late and absent every chance they get to reduce their workdays and hours.

That’s a red flag and is already telling of their attitude towards work.

#2: Always blaming others for their mistakes

A good employee knows how to take responsibility for their actions instead of pointing fingers. Blaming other people doesn’t solve any problem. In fact, it only adds fuel to the fire and is a blatant sign of toxic work behaviour.

Similarly, if your employee always comes up with excuses for every mistake they make, it shows that they are not willing to own up for their own mistakes and is a sign that they’re not eager to improve and be better for your business.

#3: Taking credit when it’s not theirs to take

The smallest dogs bark the loudest.

When they make mistakes, they blame others, but when the business achieves something or reaches a milestone, they’re the first to boast about how they did an amazing job to achieve it, magnifying their minimal contributions and making it look like they did a bulk of the work.

This only shows that they are either insecure and lazy in their jobs (or a mix of both).

#4: Backstabbing, bitchiness, and gossiping

Crab mentality is rampant in corporate, but also present in small businesses. This mentality is best described by the phrase “if I can't have it, neither can you.”

The “squeaky wheels” of business love to pull other people down, especially those who are succeeding. They act rudely towards those who are doing better, and even gossip about them to other colleagues.

This promotes divisiveness in the workplace, spreads negativity, and tears down people’s self-esteem.

#5: Difficult to talk to or work with

Negative people are unapproachable because of the bad energy around them. They tend to respond dryly or even harshly, or not entertain you at all.

In every business, collaboration matters greatly. So to have these people on the team who are difficult to engage with and work with slows productivity down and affects the general atmosphere of the workplace.

How to deal with a squeaky wheel

Job interviews show a lot about a candidate, but they don’t reveal everything about them. Even with the most scrutinising recruitment process, a few bad apples still sometimes manage to slip into your business.

Let’s say you ended up hiring one of these negative people. Obviously, having them in your team is counterproductive to the success of your business.

So what do you do now? Here’s my advice:

#1: Develop a new standard that everyone must act by - and stick to it.

What are the values of your business? Assign members of your team to help you develop a standard that aligns with these values and implement it across your business.

Have a process that determines what happens when once an employee violates the standards (e.g. send out a warning for the first major offence, suspend the employee on the second, and terminate them on the third).

#2: Educate staff about your new standards

Make sure that all your staff are aware of the new standards and why they are being implemented in the first place. 

Understanding the reasons behind having new standards will drive them more to follow it, not just because you said so, but because they know how it will improve the business and its culture.

#3: Communicate why culture is important in a business.

Share not only how productivity will increase, but also how their attitude, collaboration, and the general work environment will improve with a better culture.

Show the statistics around it, and talk about what a business with good culture is like. 

#4: Show that you’re committed to the new standards you’ve enforced.

As a leader, you must be a role model to your staff. Show your commitment to the new standards by following them always. Turn it into a habit.

Once they see that you’re demonstrating the behaviour you want for the business, your employees will be more inspired and motivated to follow you.

#5: Listen to staff who air concerns about other staff

Understand the situation and ask for direct examples from the person making the complaint. It is important that you take action and do not take these complaints lightly, especially if they’re backed up by evidence.

Ignoring their concerns means condoning possible bullying, harassment, exploitation, etc. within your organisation. And doing so also shows that you have little regard about the struggles of your staff.

By creating a positive culture and sticking to it, you create a better work environment that promotes positivity. Those who don’t follow suit and simply want their way will ultimately leave anyway.

Having a positive work culture is vital to any small business’ success. By giving oil to the squeaky wheel, you condone their negative traits and allow them to spread and poison your business.

Set new and better standards for your business instead. This will change and improve the culture in your business to one that promotes positivity, hard work, proactiveness, and collaboration. By doing this, you’ll either help turn the negative employees into positive ones, or watch them leave your organisation.

Those people will not be a loss.

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