Sometimes You Must be a Nuisance

There's an old saying, "The squeaky wheel gets the oil." I learned this early in my career. Sometimes, you must be a nuisance to get attention.

There’s an old saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” In other words, the person who complains the most, or the loudest, gets attention. This is often used in a negative fashion, suggesting that, regardless of priorities, costs or benefits, attention is given to the one that gets attention by being the greatest nuisance. I learned this early in my career. Although I very rarely resort to it, sometimes you must be a nuisance to get attention.

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil

A Nuisance Success Story

I was filling my first official position as a people leader when it came time for performance reviews. At that time, my boss was incredibly busy on a troubled project that consumed most of his time. However, the process required that I receive my review before I could conduct the same with direct reports. The deadlines were communicated across the organization and the due date for ratings, as input to the calibration sessions and compensation decisions, was fast approaching. As the deadline neared and neither I, nor my peers had received our feedback, I was concerned this important process may be missed.

My first step was to inquire as to the status and timing with my manager. I was assured the due date would be extended and there would be ample time for us to have those discussions not only on my own performance but also with those to whom I was accountable. Then, as the deadline came within days and no new date was communicated, I became concerned.

A follow up with Human Resources suggested the time line would not change. As a result, I was the new manager on the team who now had to pester my boss to clarify the matter or worse, point out the directions given were wrong. The first email clarifying my understanding from HR yielded no response. Neither did the second. In fact, a voicemail and third email had no success either – all this within a couple of days. Before I knew it, we were 2 days from deadline and many team members had not received feedback. I decided it was time to be a nuisance. In fact, I emailed my boss several times in the same day. Then, I followed up with a call that evening. Finally, the squeaky wheel got the oil.

My boss saw the multiple, high priority emails and followed up with Human Resources. The result was, in fact, the date was no longer changing. My boss had missed a critical email (as is often the case in high pressure environments) and would have missed out on this critical step for our entire team. I’d like to say my boss apologized for not responding sooner or even admitted some fault in almost missing the step. After all, we are human and make mistakes from time to time – especially when particularly busy. Instead, it seemed I upset that manager with my pestering and the result was a strained relationship.

Costs of Being a Nuisance

When you make the decision to be a nuisance, you risk an impact to your career. You also risk damaging relationships with your colleagues. For example, some of the costs of being a nuisance include:

1. Frustration of Others: If your idea is accepted or addressed to the exclusion of others, you may aggravate your peers or partners. Those individuals may feel you only “got your way” because you were a nuisance – not because you had the best solution.

2. Annoyance of Decision Maker: Whether the decision maker is your boss or not, chances are they carry significant influence and may perceive you in a negative light. I learned this in my own experience.

3. Failed Influence: Frankly, leveraging annoying tactics to achieve goals suggests a failure to influence effectively. Annoyance should be a last resort (or close to it). In my own experience above, I considered myself to have failed at effectively influencing up. I had to resort to a blunt force solution.

Benefits of Being a Nuisance

That said, there are also some benefits to becoming a nuisance to achieve results. These include:

1. Commitment: You clearly express a commitment to your position. After all, reversing your position after many, strongly worded communications, is unlikely at best and damaging at worst.

2. Assured Receipt: In a world where we are bombarded with messages (email, phone, video, social and more) using multiple mediums and frequency to convey a message ensures it is received.

3. Accountability: With many communications, across multiple mediums, you also enforce accountability. It is much harder for recipients to deny receipt of these communications. In my case, I pretty much forced the position that my boss could not deny he was made aware of the risk.

When to be a Nuisance

Given these costs and benefits of becoming a nuisance, how should we know when to leverage this tactic? Here are scenarios I feel appropriate for this tactic:

1. People Impact: As in my scenario, people leaders are accountable to do everything in their power to ensure the needs of their people are met. This includes being a nuisance, when needed, to meet those needs.

2. No Alternative: When you’ve tried everything else and simply run out of options, you may only be left with this tactic. As noted below, just be sure you are resolved to your position alone and unwilling to commit to alternatives.

3. Ensuring Receipt: Similar to my own experience above, there may be occasions when you have not confirmed receipt of your message. During these times, it may be necessary to be a nuisance simply to ensure the message is received, and read.

Only For The Right Reasons

It is important to know that being a nuisance can not be an excuse to ignore the obvious. Good leaders align with their team unless they are certain of their differentiated position. If your team is committed to another direction, you should not constantly rehash the past. Likewise, as a leader in your organization, you should not be a nuisance just to get your own way. At the heart of the matter here is ensuring you are doing this for the right reasons – to serve your stake holders. Servant leaders must push for serving the needs of their stake holders and not their own needs. If you are being a nuisance simply to achieve your own goals at the costs of your stake holders, you missed the key point.

Question: When have you had to be a nuisance? Did it hurt or help?


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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