As the old saying goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” Likewise, it is the people who complain the most who get the most attention. And, fair or not, they usually get what they want. Yet most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of complaining. We don’t want to make noise about things, and we absolutely don’t want others to think of us as irritating.
But when our annoyance is greater than our inertia and we simply cannot stand it anymore, irritation is a powerful way to change things.
If you want action, don’t underestimate the willingness to complain, to niggle, to wear people down until they would rather change than listen to the sound of us complaining for another minute—until it is less painful to just make the process better.
Kids are artists at this. At some point, most parents have given in just to shut them up. This is “pester power,” an established marketing theory that kids will pester their parents relentlessly until buying them that thing hurts less than not buying it.
Most adults are too socially compliant to be that annoying. We do not want to be squeaky wheels for fear of rejection, so we keep quiet. It’s hardly surprising. From an early age, our parents teach us that complaining is impolite. We are conditioned to say nothing and to get on with our lives and work (besides the few times we stayed strong until mom and dad folded).
How to complain effectively
Yet those willing to defy this, to complain, can actually change things that aren’t working—or, at the very least, draw attention to issues we otherwise might not have noticed. The loudest squeak gets the go-ahead; the silent soldier just carries onward, hoping someone will notice the same things they do and do something about it. Leaders and organizations willing to speak out about what’s wrong can inspire people to follow them as they seek out a better way.
So how do you become a squeaky wheel and harness the power of complaining? Here are four suggestions:
1. Don’t complain about everything; complain about one thing.
Squeaky wheels are not simply making an irritating noise. They are asking for oil, which means there is a clear reason for why they are behaving the way that they are.
Constant complaining on multiple topics quickly turns you from a squeaky wheel to a whiny complainer. Defining what you are complaining about and being clear on why you are doing so is important if you want people to listen.
2. Have an idea on how to fix it.
Granted, your theory on fixing things may not be perfect. The point is that you are attempting to solve the problem—not simply hoping someone else will. Complaining with a vision of a better way is not the same as just moaning about a problem.
3. Don’t be afraid of a little negativity.
The power of positivity might be trending right now, but negative motivators are extremely influential, too. Look at breakpoints and what you aren’t doing so well—not just the things that are working. If you don’t have any ideas, you are not listening hard enough to the squeaky wheels around you.
4. Be willing to be, not be liked.
Complaining is a little annoying, but that is precisely the point. Your willingness to say what’s not popular, what’s not being said, is necessary to challenge the status quo. Squeaky wheels need to accept the fact that not everyone will like what they hear. People will try and cover their ears or look the other way. People who change things are often seen as misfits because they question the way things have always been done. But if we are willing to keep squeaking, someone will eventually bring the oil can.
Behavioral strategists Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan are the authors of the book Selfish, Scared & Stupid. They specialize in unlocking human behavior to create organizational and cultural change and to build environments that lift performance and engagement.
This article was published in April 2015 and has been updated. Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock