Managing the squeaky wheel

If you’ve managed teams or organisations for a while, you know there’s invariably one.  The team member who gets categorised as “high-maintenance” or sometimes even “highly strung”. They are valuable members of the team, often solid engineers, technologists or other specialists, but they consume a disproportionate amount of your time as a manager.

So what can be done?

First of all, it helps to understand what they bring to the table.  Sometimes people who are tremendously gifted in one area are not terribly well-rounded in others.  In the most extreme examples, they may not have any sense of personal boundaries, or may display behaviours which are borderline disruptive. A classic symptom is that they contact you to vent or moan on a regular basis, without any particular structure. They may not have anything specifically work-related to discuss – sometimes they will want to discuss a family issue, or an issue with their commute, or even a problem with their pets. They can also obsess about their ongoing employment status, whether through fear of losing their jobs, or lack of progression.  I’ve had conversations about all of those things with individuals who could be categorised as a squeaky wheel.  During difficult conversations it can be very useful to keep in mind the value that they bring to the team and the organisation, so that we stay invested in the individual and don’t disengage.

Secondly, it helps to determine whether they single you out to offload their burdens onto.  It can be very enlightening to subtly question other leaders in your organisation to find out what kind of interactions they have with the individual in question.  If their conduct is universal, it may be necessary to address it head on.  If they develop a reputation for unproductive conversation with other managers it can impact their career progression, regardless of the value they bring.

Then you can start to think about the behaviours, and what might be causing them to act the way they do.  A lot of the time I’ve found that putting structure around any interactions they wish to have (ensuring they establish a reasonable, focussed agenda) can be helpful in getting them to focus on work-related topics.  It can also be helpful, particularly when there is a negative bias to their discussions, to try to help them see alternative interpretations.   This is not always easy, but over time can make a difference to the tone – reduce the squeaking, as it were. Additionally, it may be important to understand what has led them to where they are – be it perceived loss of status, loss of management responsibility, or less valued skill-set in a changing organisation.

If there are genuine work-related concerns, it is important to separate those out from the noise, listen empathetically, and then help guide them towards solutions.  It is very important that we take these concerns seriously – but once the conversation is done and the issue has been addressed, it is equally important to draw a line through it, so it doesn’t become a running or circular topic.  Managing squeaky wheels isn’t about appeasement – it’s about re-focussing their energy in more positive directions.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, it can be difficult for us to get through to people who display this type of behaviour regularly.  For me, it was an individual who I managed for two years.  I discovered by recruiting someone else to act as a mentor that the problem was me.  The approach I took in trying to steer the individual onto a more positive, productive path just didn’t work.  I couldn’t find a way to get through to them.  By pairing them up with a mentor who had started from a similar background but was much further along in their career, I was able to get them the help they needed in a way that made sense to them.  The individual in question is now flourishing, despite, rather than because of, my best efforts.

Finally, I would say that it is always beneficial to acknowledge and praise positive changes in behaviour, however small.  We all like to be recognised for personal and professional development in a way that is meaningful to us.  And by understanding the causes of the behaviours and getting the individual onto a better path, we can set them up for future success, which becomes self-fulfilling.  In time, with luck, the squeaky wheel can become a highly valued, successful and above all positive contributor to the team and the organisation.

(One last thing – make sure the squeaky wheel isn’t you!)

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