Small Business: Why the Squeaky Wheel Shouldn’t Get the Oil

a large wooden wheel sitting on top of a hill

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.

If you don’t know the saying, the one who complains the most (or the loudest) gets the most attention and focus. It happens across businesses and workplaces and it drives me crazy.

You know the ones, the customers and staff members who have a lot of negative comments but do very little to help improve things – it’s just noise. From my experience, squeaky wheels have limited talent and ability and will quickly move to threats, intimidation and petty approaches to get what they want – they’ve been doing this for a while so they are very well practised – which is how they got this far in life without any talent or effort.

The reason I can’t stand it is because they make life hell for you and your good-meaning colleagues who simply want to do their job.

Condoning these behaviours of complaints, threats and gossip only rewards the negative behaviour and reinforces the squeaky wheel to apply – and double down on – negative approaches in the future. If there are no repercussions and they are getting rewarded, why would they stop?

As a business coach, here’s my advice: Never give the squeaky wheel oil. Or better yet, replace the wheel altogether with a hard-working, quiet one.

A squeaky wheel ruins culture and morale

The biggest threat a squeaky wheel poses to your business is the death of your hard-earned business culture. If you’ve worked in the corporate world you would have seen firsthand how predominantly big 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 which will follow on to have a negative effect on your business:

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.

As well as a change in behaviour towards that standout employee, your employees will not look to them as a role model, so instead of spreading positive work attitudes, it’s the negativity that starts to grow and thrive.

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

It’s not a pretty thought but the fact stands that 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.

Obviously you 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.

It affects employee health and wellbeing

Following on from how toxic mindsets and behaviours are contagious, they will also go on to affect the health of your employees, which can be seen both physically and mentally, as well as in a drop in work productivity.

Low morale or anxiety about possible peer confrontations or demands can leave your employees feeling lonely, burnt out and depressed resulting in more employees maximising their available sick leave.

Good health and well-being should be a priority of every business, not just for productivity and managing sick leave, but also to be able to offer a quality place of work.

The best of your team head for the exit

Who’d want to work for a company with a toxic culture and low morale? When your employees have no personal satisfaction at work, no amount of money is going to be enough to keep them with you. If toxic culture is allowed to persist, you’ll find staff members leaving one by one, or even in waves.

As well as slowing down your business output, filling job vacancies is expensive, especially when you factor in that new employees need to be trained and set up from scratch. No business can afford to have high turnover rates, yet some companies have rates that spike up to 30-40%.

According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, it costs around six to nine months of your former employee’s salary to identify and onboard their replacement.

Negative culture gives your brand a bad rep

If the morale is low in your business it will reflect in your employee’s behaviours. They won’t be putting in their best or even care about their work outcomes which leads to things like poor customer service and relations, errors and misjudgements, poor communication within the team as well as your external supplier’s distributors service personnel, dissatisfied customers and negative reviews.

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

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 the culture that you shouldn’t turn a blind eye to:

  1. Alarmingly poor 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.

  1. 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.

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 mistakes and weaknesses –  a sign that they’re not eager to improve, learn or grow.

  1. Taking credit when it’s not theirs to take

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 or lazy in their jobs (or a mix of both).

  1. Backstabbing, bitchiness, and gossip

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. Some squeaky wheels will directly confront high achievers with biting remarks, insults and ‘advice’ while others prefer the more manipulative approach by fuelling gossip, rumours or negative comments that set seeds of doubt in other colleagues.

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

  1. Difficult to talk to or work with

Negative people are unapproachable and difficult to communicate with as there is usually little or no flexibility, empathy or assistance. They tend to respond dryly or even harshly, or not entertain you at all.

In every business, collaboration matters to bring experiences and processes together as one. So to have people on the team who are difficult to engage with slows productivity down and affects workplace harmony.

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 manage to slip through.

Let’s say you ended up hiring one of these squeaky wheels, what do you do now?

Here’s my advice:

Step 1. Develop a 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 your business values and implement it across the board.

Have a process that determines what happens when 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).

Step 2. Educate staff on new standards

There is no point in drafting processes if you don’t communicate them. Effective communication means creating an open door where your team members can have a say, be included and are given full access to what you are implementing and what you want the result to be.

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.

Step 3. Communicate why culture is important in a business.

The term “work culture” has been thrown around a bit and might have more of a marketing feel than a genuine cause. Make sure your employees know what culture is as well as what the benefits are. Share not only how productivity will increase, but also how their attitude, collaboration, and the general work environment will improve with a better culture. Have examples ready to help support your descriptions to give them more emotion and make the end results tangible.

It can also help to show some statistics around it, and talk about what a business with a good culture is like.

Step 4. Show your commitment

As a leader, you must be a role model to your staff. Show your commitment to the new standards by always following them and following through whenever workplace values are challenged. If a squeaky wheel can see that you are not enforcing your processes, they will have no incentive to play by the rules.

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.

Step 5. Listen to staff who air concerns

As the leader and business manager, you might not get to be the one to experience the squeaky wheel effects. To fully understand the situation within your business make sure you listen to your team, get more than one point of view 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 and exploitation within your organisation as well as demonstrating that you have little regard for the struggles of your staff.

If staff can see that you are available and willing to listen, they won’t need to bury the pressure of negativity until breaking point.

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 your small business success. By giving oil to the squeaky wheel, you condone their negative traits and allow them to spread negative opinions and habits through your business.

Rather than give in, set the standards for how your business needs to operate and be the role model to guide the way. This will change and improve the culture in your business to one that promotes positivity, hard work, proactiveness, and collaboration.

Your negative employees will either shape up into positive ones, or pack up their desk and leave your organisation. Those people will not be a loss.

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