Who's Your Insultant?


What can sparrows teach about the value of an insultant?

An insultant? Yes, someone who is always ready and willing to tell us what we need to hear. The best ones don’t do it to pull us down or hold us back, but to launch us forward. They have no fear of the truth, but only of not speaking the truth in a way that helps others change.

Too many of us are surrounded with people that think they should say only what we want to hear. They may be yes men who play politics, or frightened souls who fear what you might do if they said what they really feel, or empty heads that don’t have an opinion and are merely punching the clock. Whatever they are, swap a few for an insultant to help you see things as they really are.

The experts who study this problem tell us that people are really good at seeing other’s problems, but not their own. Rare is the person who sees themselves as they really are. Most of us are at least partially blind and as we move up the organizational ladder, the less likely we are to get the candid and courageous truth we need to see clearly.

Consider the case of the sparrow:

On May 18, 1958, the Chinese dictator, Mao, erroneously convinced that sparrows were eating large portions of China’s grain crop, ordered: “The whole people, including 5 year old children, be mobilized” to eliminate the sparrows. A former Chinese elementary school student, quoted in Judith Shapiro’s memorable book Mao’s War Against Nature, describes the slaughter. “The whole school went to kill sparrows. We climbed ladders to knock down their nests, and beat gongs in the evenings when they were coming home to roost.”

This coordinated effort, by millions of Chinese children and adults, killing sparrows, beating gongs at a specific designated hour all over the countryside, day after day, to exhaust the birds, basically wiped out the sparrow population. The next year locusts and other pests that were the primary food sources for sparrows, devoured the grain crop. The sparrows had been their predators. Without the sparrows, the pests took over. A famine ensued. Millions of Chinese died. The next year Mao was informed that the campaign against the sparrows backfired. He issued a new order: “Forget it.” Quoted from Michael Schulder’s post at AC360 on March 20, 2009.

Every organization I’ve worked in or with is a democraship – a combination of a democracy and a dictatorship. This is a good thing as long as the organization enjoys the strengths of both. Dictators, like Mao, have an unbelievable ability to get things done. The eradication of the sparrow is a perfect example. Democracies are good at help leaders see things clearly and avoid the unintended consequences of poor choices. The democracy part of the equation fails when we don’t get involved and speak up.

If you’re a top dog, find some insultants inside and outside your organization. You need their insights.

If your in the pack, become an insultant. Speak up. Become an influencer.

For some great ideas for becoming a powerful insultant, devour the books by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler:

Action, StrategyBrett Pinegar