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Should you let the squeaky wheel squeak?

Taking complaints seriously without encouraging whining

By Andrew Treash (Guest Blogger)

The old saw “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” seems undeniably true. People who speak up get their concerns addressed and those who don’t continue to suffer. The lesson is to speak up when something is bothering you, and the more noise you make the more likely you are to get your complaint fixed.

I doubt anyone would proudly say their organization adheres to the squeaky wheel philosophy of problem solving, but it happens anyway. And certainly complaints should be addressed and taken seriously. If no action is taken when people speak up, or worse yet, there are reprisals, then people will be discouraged from airing issues. This leads down the slippery slope to groupthink and people getting along just to get along. Having a good complaint mechanism is a must for every organization.

The downside of greasing squeaky wheels is you may end up spending too many resources on passing problems, trivialities, or just plain whining. Wolf Rinke, in his book Don't Oil the Squeaky Wheel … and 19 Other Contrarian Ways to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness, argues that if you spend time listening to everyone’s complaints, you not only reward whining but also end up neglecting high-performing and positive employees who are less likely to complain.

Another problem with reacting to fix a complaint is it may be something only one or a few people have an issue with. By trying to fix a problem, you may inadvertently make things worse. One person complains it’s too hot, so you turn the temperature down — then two people complain that it’s too cold, and so on.  On the other hand, some things — like harassment — are a problem if just one person complains.

So how do you get around the squeaky wheel syndrome and still address legitimate concerns? Here are a few possibilities:

•Before spending a lot of time working on a solution, think about how severe the complaint is. What are the worst-case and most likely scenarios if the problem continues? Would either addressing or not addressing the complaint send a bad message to other employees?

•If you recognize whining, don’t allow yourself to get caught up in it. However, look for legitimate problems behind the whining. If possible, get people to write down their complaints and suggest possible solutions.

•Don’t let the squeaky wheel control the agenda for everyone. If someone makes a complaint, ask other employees in similar positions what they think about the situation.

•Actively solicit regular feedback, both positive and negative.

•Use formal employee surveys to get a picture of what everyone is thinking. Make sure you use statistical analysis to find out whether the results are significantly different from benchmarks. Don’t be misled by a small sample size.

•For larger organizations, have an employee ombudsman to deal with whistleblowing and other complaints and gripes.

How have you dealt with squeaky wheel problems? What kinds of things can HR do to make things better?

Andrew Treash is a guest blogger for the HR Policies & Practices blog and an HR and compliance writer for Consult Carswell. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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