The Squeaky Wheel

Important/urgent grid

Important/urgent grid

I hope by now everyone is familiar with the 2×2 grid of urgent/important, which teaches us that we should be focusing our time on what is important (and possibly urgent) and less time on the unimportant (and often urgent).   For example, that shoe sale that ends at 5 pm is urgent, but my closet will tell me that it’s definitively unimportant.

This prioritization often falls into the category of easier said than done, like most things worth doing. We probably are able to achieve a measure of success with it most of the time, and that’s probably all we can reasonably expect (we’re just human, after all). Besides, a little retail therapy during a stressful period can be pretty important sometimes too, right?

I believe most of us probably view this grid as a guide to how we should be spending our time. But I believe this grid should also inform what we do with our resources. For example, as parents, friends, spouses, family members, managers and colleagues, we must decide each day how to allocate time, attention, money, promotions, recognition, autonomy and so forth. For example, the working-too-much parental guilt stereotype says we spend too much or are too permissive with our children instead of giving them the time we subconsciously believe they need.   We may also over-prioritize building our children’s self-esteem rather than building their character. Spoiling/overpraising may seem urgent and important, but what may be even more important are the long term or bigger picture goals of teaching responsibility, gratitude, patience, and compassion.

Same is true at work. Though we are less likely to spoil employees because of some kind of guilt, the analogy comes to light when considering the problem employee. We may spend the majority of our time, energy and resources on the squeaky wheel or “problem child” because it feels urgent. Those folks may get extra training and development, one:one meeting time, the choice projects in hopes they will finally perform, or even the promotion.   In the meantime, the superstars and team players are left to pick up the pieces and do the dirty work, as their needs may seem to be neither urgent nor important.

This approach is like giving the screaming kid a lollipop while the good kid has to run to fetch it.   The screamer learns that by screaming, he can get rewarded, and the good kid just feels ignored and unimportant. In the end, everyone loses.

This observation does not mean that we ignore the problems and hope they go away. Rather, I am suggesting that we reward (not just financial) the behavior we wish to cultivate as the first priority in all employees. We may also look for the deeper reason for poor behavior instead of only attempting superficial solutions. The screaming child may really need consistent positive attention (not urgent, but important) rather than a lollipop (urgent, not important), along with clear boundaries and consequences that are consistently enforced. Yes, those consequences may be uncomfortable and unpleasant in the short run, but they can potentially pay off in the long run.

Less obvious are the examples in our adult relationships. Who is acting out? Are you rewarding that behavior with time, attention or resources? If so, how can you discover the underlying issue? Can you focus on that instead but with the proper boundaries? In other words, you can help someone else with an issue, but realize that in the end, it’s their responsibility to manage that issue. If they can’t improve despite your attempts to support them, it may be time for them to suffer the natural consequences of their behavior. Otherwise, the entire team will suffer the consequences for them.  And shoe shopping won’t cut it. Unless maybe you go to Jimmy Choo.

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