Heavy Handed Measures
/ Author: Andre van Heerden
/ Categories: Blogs, Newsletters, National /
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Heavy Handed Measures

Beware of the unintended consequences of “smash sparrow” solutions to solving problems

By André van Heerden, Communications Director

The other day I heard about something that I originally didn’t believe and had to research to make sure it was true.

In 1958, the Chinese government launched the Four Pests Campaign, a nationally mandated and enforced campaign to rid the country of four pests: rats, flies, mosquitos, and sparrows. The government didn’t like how sparrows in particular were eating grain in the fields, and so the “smash sparrows campaign” began.

Chinese officials and the public destroyed nests and eggs, shot the birds out of the sky, and organized into groups to bang pots and pans and beat drums to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests. The birds would eventually drop dead from exhaustion.

There’s no way to accurately know how many sparrows were killed during this period, but hundreds of millions died. They were pushed to near extinction in China.

Unfortunately, this also led to one of the worst ecological and humanitarian disasters in history. Sparrows not only eat grain, they eat insects—including locusts. Without the birds, locust populations soared and decimated grain crops, which contributed to the Great Chinese Famine. It’s estimated that 35 to 45 million people starved to death.

In 1960, the Chinese government stopped the smash sparrows campaign and imported 250,000 sparrows back into China from the Soviet Union.

This tragic event has many good lessons to learn from, but one of the biggest is recognizing when potential solutions are too aggressive, too far-reaching, or likely to cause much bigger issues. I’m reminded of the children’s book The King, the Mice and the Cheese. There too a king’s aggressive solutions lead to bigger and bigger problems.

I’m sure many parents, having been pushed and aggravated by misbehaving children while out at a restaurant, have said, “That’s it! We’re never going out again!” The solution may feel right in a moment of anger, but the long term consequences far outweigh any immediate benefit.

Will the family never enjoy outings to a restaurant again, and miss all the good times and memories that would be had, because of one incident? But if the parents don’t carry out the threat, their children will know they can get away with misbehaving because they’ve learned there aren’t any real consequences.

When I was a kid, I remember one time when our soccer coach made our team run laps around the soccer field at half time after we played terribly in the first half. The other team and parents all watched in shock as we ran around the field exhausted instead of getting rest and water.

As you would expect, we didn’t play any better in the second half!

Solutions and reprimands need to be appropriate, constructive, and measured. This is especially true in workplaces. A poor response to a problem, blurted in anger, can permanently damage relationships, an employee’s work performance, and certainly project outcomes.

Most people would agree that solutions shouldn’t be implemented in anger. Whether it’s parenting, coaching, or running a workplace, strong emotions cloud our ability to see if a solution is in fact appropriate, constructive, and measured.

And if your solution includes the words never, start running, or smash, you should carefully reconsider.

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