I love those opportunities where you can discover something good out of something that seems to have gone wrong. A situation like this is where I am talking with an employee and fail to confront them on an issue where their performance is falling short of expectation.

For example, I pass an employee in the hallway from whom I have expected a report that is long overdue:

They say: I don’t have that report ready. Can I get it to you tomorrow?

I reply: Oh ok, I know things are busy, please have it to me by tomorrow.

I think in my inner voice: #$%! This is the third time you have promised the report and have failed to deliver. I think you’re slacking off.

Having not held them accountable, my performance also falls short of expectations. During exchanges like that I often hear my inner voice that is saying something completely different from what I am actually saying to the person. The good that can come out of this situation is my recognition that the disconnect between what I am thinking and saying is contributing to the problem, and that I resolve to do something about it.

The experience of thinking in your inner voice was labelled as left-column thinking by Chris Argyris & Donald Schon. Its significance was further elaborated upon by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The left-hand column refers to the technique where you write on the left side of a page what you were thinking, and opposite that, in the right-hand column, write what you actually said.

The content of the left-hand column will surface your underlying feelings and assumptions about the situation, which you didn’t feel comfortable expressing directly to your employee. Think about why you didn’t you say what was in your left-hand column:

  • Are you holding assumptions about the other person which you realize you don’t have enough information to verify? Does the individual know what is expected? Are there obstacles beyond the individual’s control?
  • Are you concerned about how you will handle conflict or emotions that may exist (in the other person or yourself)?

Considering these questions may provide insight into why you are reluctant to surface potentially challenging issues, and to identify issues you habitually avoid. It helps to then make a commitment to find ways to purposefully address these issues.

Now, you can take what you have learned and work to rewrite the conversation and prepare to have it in the future:

  1. Pick a problem where you have had conversations with someone and your inner voice was obviously different from what you actually said.

Write each down in its respective right and left columns.

  1. Write a sentence about your intention in this conversation and what you wish to accomplish.

Specify why this issue is important; for example, what is the specific information you need in the report, and why. (It sometimes happens at this stage that you realize the thing you wanted isn’t so important after all, and you decide to let it go. If so, make sure to let the person know this, and change the relevant procedures; for example eliminating the requirement for this particular report.)

  1. Start rewriting the previous conversation as you might now have it.

What could you say that would bring some of your important left-hand column thinking to the surface? Continue to refrain from saying something when it doesn’t pertain to your intention in the conversation, or is based on assumptions you hold about the other person’s behavior or motives that are not yet based on facts. Ask questions that will help verify or eliminate your assumptions.

Here are some suggestions to help you prepare for the next conversation:

Ask for clarification 
  • Using the word ‘specifically’ can be helpful; for example, ‘When you say you don’t have that report done, what specifically still needs to be completed?’ Ask for the specific information you need if it is a smaller part of the full report.
Ask Open Questions when you need/want more information
  • For example, ‘Tell me what is keeping you from completing that report?’ She replies, ‘Finance is not providing me the information I need.’
Use Closed Questions when you need specific information/responses
  • ‘When does this happen?’
Ask for concrete examples, especially when someone uses words like ‘always’ or ‘never’
  • ‘When specifically did that occur?’’ What reports were impacted?’
Stay on track
  • Sometimes you need to repeat yourself to remind your listener that you are committed to staying on topic. So when the listener says, ‘But, what about Mary, she never gets her reports in on time’, you can say, ‘We are here today to talk about…’
Stay resourceful and resilient

In order to have your employee be in a resourceful and resilient state to deal with their performance issue, you need to be in a similar state when you have this conversation.

  • Practice using physical stress-reduction techniques.
  • Recognize that you are learning from this interaction, use the individual’s response and outcome of the meeting as feedback, and plan your approach for the next conversation.
  • Pat yourself on the back for intervening.

Managers who regularly practice this approach of writing down their challenging conversations using left and right-hand columns have reported they eventually start to self-edit during the actual conversation. Now, that makes holding people accountable a lot easier!