Not Letting the Tail Wag the Dog: Why Squeaky Wheels Shouldn’t Get the Grease

November 14, 2017

Deke Copenhaver

Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
In any given situation within any given organization, whether it be a business, a local government, a church or a civic club, we’ve all heard the same old refrain when a vocal minority gets their way: the squeaky wheel always gets the grease. Yet when you really think about it, this should be one of the most ridiculous statements we’ve ever bought into. Here’s why.

First off, squeaky wheels should get grease because they need grease, not because they’re constantly complaining that they want grease and if they don’t get said grease they’re going to continue to raise Cain until the grease is applied. Having served in local government for quite some time I saw this principle played out again and again as people who opposed something had a “pack the chambers” mentality where they would loudly, often times very disrespectfully, make their voices heard. Sometimes these meetings would take on a carnival atmosphere with people even wearing caveman outfits to several after I once referred to Citizens Against Virtually Everything as C.A.V.E. people in a guest column I wrote for our local paper. Can you imagine what would happen if your kids did this in a classroom at school?

But here’s the thing: our chambers when packed only fit about fifty people whereas the City of Augusta is home to around 200,000 residents. In doing the math, fifty angry citizens in a city of our size represent a grand total of .00025% of the total city’s population. Not at all a democratic representation of the overall consensus of the citizenry as a whole, yet nine times out of ten the vocal folks who packed the chambers got their way. This is simply a classic example of the tail wagging the dog, where a small, vocal majority impedes progress by influencing the decision making process in any given situation (usually to the detriment of the majority of those impacted by the decision).

With this in mind I decided early on that I would never make decisions at the point of a spear. I realized that every decision I made, in some way shape or form, ultimately impacted the lives of those 200,000 people I served. The end result was that the vocal minority on any given issue stopped targeting me as they knew that I’d politely listen to what they had to say but that I wasn’t going to let a raucous crowd or a number of angry calls, letters or emails, stop me from making an informed decision based on facts and not on raw emotion.

I’ve always been a firm believer in freedom of speech and in a representative democracy. Citizens have the right to voice their opinions. The same is true in corporations where shareholders are allowed to attend meetings to give their input.  I believe it’s a very good practice in businesses, or any other organization, to get valuable input from your employees, your customers, your clients, or anyone who can add value to the decision making process. I don’t believe, however, in people forgoing their common decency and throwing civility out the window while adopting a peasants with pitchforks attitude to make sure they get their way while disregarding the impact of their actions on others.

I’ve often made this analogy: If while raising a child you simply threw up your hands every time they threw a tantrum and let them have their way, what kind of child would you raise? As we try to nurture things to grow in a healthy manner whether it’s a city, a business or any other organization, I believe it’s worth asking ourselves the same question when we keep letting the tail wag the dog and continue to focus on letting the squeaky wheels get the grease.

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