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Enough Corporate Speak!

Feb 11, 2020

Enough Corporate Speak!  

What’s in Your Left-Hand Column?

The Ugly Truth

These days, just about every company says that they want to tap the creativity of their workforce, that they want to foster meaningful dialogue across silos, that they want to create a culture of psychological safety. Those are great things to want, but too often they just don’t happen.

Everywhere we go, we find people who don’t share their best ideas, managers who rarely challenge the status quo, and leaders who are themselves afraid to speak up for fear of getting their metaphorical heads chopped off.  They take the safe bet and hide behind corporate speak.

We all have our reasons, but the truth is that most people struggle to say what they really think, because they’re worried about creating conflict, damaging relationships, or getting voted off the island. The stuff in their heads has incredible value, but it gets so diluted that it loses its impact.  It’s a shame, a waste of talent and it happens every day, in every company.

How Do We Know This?  Research!

How do we know people are fearful of speaking up and don’t say what they think?  We’ve got the receipts! In our work with global organizations, we use a case study approach called the Left-Hand Column. It was created by one of the founders of OD, so it has major academic street-cred, but it’s also very simple.  Someone picks a challenging interaction and documents it in a two-column format. On the right, they put down what was actually said. In the left-hand column, they put down what they thought and felt, but didn’t say. Then we look at the difference.  Take a look and see if this feels familiar.

Over 25,000 case studies later, the message is clear—when the stakes go up, people try to play it safe.  To be fair, some of the stuff we think really is inappropriate or unhelpful. But we don’t realize how often we over-filter ourselves and just how unproductive the watered-down stuff is, that we say and do instead.  So often we walk away from these conversations feeling more frustrated and having caused the exact opposite of the outcome we wanted.

Recognizing this dynamic and correcting it in ourselves is a good first step.  To really move the culture of an organization, it takes a critical mass of leaders.  Here are three quick tips to help you start building it in your organization:

  1. Have a little fun with it:

One of our clients is hard at work developing leaders that use their LHC to engage people, change minds and lead different.  The business rational is clear.  Leaders that frame the real issues productively and bring people together drive better business results.  But she’s not making her case with bar graphs and NPV calculations. She’s spreading the message with shared vocabulary and more than a little humor.  She’s currently working on T-shirts that say: “Dude, what’s in your Left-Hand Column!” Now, when people use that light-hearted shorthand in team meetings, it’s a sign of progress.

  1. Help other people get theirs out:

Gone are the days when any single leader can have all the answers. Remember that the people you work with all have their own Left-Hand Columns, and there’s almost always some good stuff trapped in there. Often, your leadership work is to help others get their thoughts and ideas on the table.  It takes work to get people to say what’s really on their mind, but you can start simple. Here’s a phrase to try: “say more about that”. You will be surprised at what you hear.  

  1. Leave some space:

Here’s a word to the wise from Ronald Heifetz at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “most leaders die with their mouths open”.  How’s that for a Left-Hand Column? The truth is we’re often so intent on “adding value” to the conversation that we can suck all the oxygen out of the room.  Sometimes the best thing we can do is to leave some breathing room for others. If we resist our own temptation to fill the empty space, then others can begin to speak up.