by Trevor Lee

The reality is that the people in an office who make the most noise tend to get the most attention. This is normal, but it’s not good.

Last week our van started squealing. It was really annoying and impossible to ignore. In fact, it consumed my attention so much that my son was halfway through a story before I even realized he was talking to me. I tried to pay attention, but the squealing relentlessly drew my attention away from what he was saying.

I had a choice. I could try to ignore the noise and go on with life as usual–hoping the van didn’t completely break down–or I could address it. Ignoring it would have consequences. First, there was clearly something wrong, and ignoring it would eventually lead to big problems. Sure, I could put off taking the van to the shop, but I would be risking bigger, and more expensive problems. The second problem with ignoring it was that I couldn’t really ignore it. Sure, I’d kind of get used to it, but until it was fixed it would always be pulling my attention away from more important things whenever I was driving. The other problem with trying to ignore it was that it would bother me even when I wasn’t driving. I’d be in a meeting or wake up at night and think about what I should do–how long I had until it really blew up. It might not cause me huge amounts of anxiety, but it would still be there, distracting me, even when I wasn’t in the van.

These same dynamics are in play when there is a “squeaky wheel” in the office. These are people who always require attention. It could be the guy who is in the boss’ office once a week with a complaint about another employee. Or the woman who tosses in sarcastic comments during meetings. There are lots of different ways to “squeak” in the office, but if you have someone like this you know what it’s like. They add constant drama and tension to the environment.

Just like with my van, ignoring the squeaky wheel in the office isn’t a good idea. They will suck life from your culture, frustrate other employees, and create and environment that stifles creativity and teamwork. So how do you deal with a squeaky wheel?

Step One: Get clarity on what’s really happening.

Take some time to reflect on the dynamics at play. Is the person displaying a lack of character with underhanded comments or talking behind people’s backs? Are they incapable of doing their job well without constant help? Is their personality one that needs constant attention? There are lots of reasons someone functions as a squeaky wheel, which is why it’s important you get clarity on what’s really happening.

Step Two: Address the issue directly.

Most squeaky wheels won’t just get the hint. Besides, being passive-aggressive isn’t good behavior for anyone, let alone a leader. Since you’ve taken the time to reflect on what’s actually going on you have a handle on what needs to be addressed. State the problem and what needs to change clearly. Give them the chance to respond and listen well. You never know what’s going on behind the scenes, and you may gain valuable information that helps you both address the situation. Once you’ve had that conversation, reiterate the changes that need to happen and the consequences if the behavior doesn’t change. Make sure these things are very clear.

Step Three: Manage yourself well.

When my van was squealing it annoyed me. But here’s the thing, it was in my power to do something about it. I couldn’t control that the squealing started, but if I didn’t do anything about it and continued to be annoyed, that was on me. Once you’ve laid out the changes that need to happen and the consequences if they don’t, it’s on you to follow through without getting flustered. And you do need to follow through. If you don’t you’ll send the message that you’re not all that serious about the behavior changing. It’s important for your culture, the people in your organization, and even for the squeaky wheel that you stick to what you’ve said with a settled and calm demeanor.

Step Four: If necessary, let them go.

If the squeaky wheel continues to squeak there comes a time where you need to make the tough decision to let them go. For some leaders this is a no brainer; for others it is complicated by a desire to hold on and try to help someone change. The instinct to walk with people toward positive change is a good one, but you also have to consider the collateral damage. Someone who continually brings drama and tension to the office is negatively impacting your organization and every other person that works there. By keeping someone who will not change you are punishing your other employees and hurting the success of your organization. Who knows, maybe getting let go is the wake up call the squeaky wheel needs to pursue real change.