How to avoid being a squeaky wheel - The Hindu Business Line

October 10, 2016 | Dr. C. Gopinath

The squeaky wheel gets the grease. This idiom reminds us that staying silent may not work if we want a problem fixed. When the flight gets cancelled, the loud and complaining passengers are getting their travel re-routed while the rest wait for an announcement about a possible next flight.

We can also see it working in organisations. The complaining manager gets more budget allocation for her projects, and the vocal executive gets the office with the window. Albert Hischman, an economist, gave us a nice theory to wrap this around. His focus was on decline in organisations and how the organisation can stem the decline by looking at employee behaviour. The unhappy employee could either ‘voice’ the complaint like the squeaky wheel, or ‘exit’ the situation (i.e., quit the organisation). A person who did not choose one or the other but suffered through the decline could do so on account of ‘loyalty’, at least initially, before moving on to exit or voice.


Respond the right way

This works in the case of customer response too. If you are a long-time customer of the restaurant, bad food may lead you to complain to help improve the situation, or you exit by making a mental note not to return.

Hirschman did not go into the organisation’s response to exit or voice and that is where the organisational theorist takes over from the economist. In cases of exit, well-run organisations have an exit interview to learn the reasons for the exit. In theory at least, such data will help improve the working of the organisation. In the case of voice, a squeaky employee, if otherwise a valuable contributor, will get a response. The complaint is attended to, and the behaviour tolerated.

But squeaky behaviour can also evince a passive-aggressive response from the manager. If the squeaking is about an ongoing project as not being viable or the manager is unable to admit a mistake, then the squeaking is putting management in an uncomfortable position and will definitely lead to the employee being ignored, and sidelined. The sidelining will include less access to senior managers, not being involved in new projects, and so on, ultimately forcing an exit. And the organisation hasn’t learned the lesson it is supposed to.


Blowing the lid

This is the situation whistleblowers often face. Dinesh Thakur, when working for Ranbaxy, doubted the authenticity of the data being reported for drug approvals by the US FDA. His complaints were of no avail. Ultimately, he exited the company and filed a case under the US whistleblowers’ act. When the case was finally decided against Ranbaxy, Thakur received his reward of $49 million (about ₹318 crore).

A less traumatic strategy for the employee is to convey that the squeaking is with particular reference to an activity and not generally about the organisation.

This advice also applies when it comes to feedback. The general tendency by most people is to constantly point out all the faults and what needs to be done to fix them. But for every negative feedback, try to think of a positive one. Then, the response is seen as balanced.

Of course, the organisation that neither recognises voice nor exit as an indication of troubles that need to be repaired is destined to go into deep decline.