Ryan Armstrong
Change management. Learning. Maps.

Argyris and Schön's Left-Side, Right-Side Exercise as a Research Tool

13 August 2019

People often fail to walk their talk.

Chris Arygris and Donald Schon’s theory-in-action approach to organizational learning holds that there is some value in revealing and understanding the nature of inconsistencies between the talk (espoused values), and the underlying, often unconscious values guiding ‘the walk’ (theories-in-use).

How to identify these inconsistencies, though, when our theories-in-use are often hidden from ourselves? Argyris and Schön developed a technique to identify the inconsistencies between espoused values and theories-in-use which I call the ‘Left-side, right-side’ technique (as far as I know the authors did not give it a name).

The technique1:

1. Think about an important issue that you have tried to solve or will try to solve in the near future. There are no limits on the topic, except that you should see it as crucial to your own success or the success of your research group.
2. Describe the steps you took (or plan to take) in order to resolve the issue. With whom did you meet? What was the purpose of the meeting as you recollect it (or as you expect it to be)?
3. In the right-hand column in the space below, write the conversation, as you can best recollect it. Begin with what you said, what the other(s) said, then what you said, and so on, for about 2 to 3 pages. If it a session that has not yet been held, describe what you plan to say, what you expect others to say, and so on.
4. In the left-hand column, write any thoughts and feelings you had as the conversation proceeded (or that you believe you will have when you meet sometime in the future)

I am thinking to use the technique in an upcoming project, and wanted to include some thoughts on its pros and cons.

Cons:

First, the technique requires taking people outside of their working life, so the extent to which we will see theories-in-use is limited2. However, in my case on-site observation is not possible, and so the alternative is likely a semi-structured interview.

Secondly, the critical reflection involved can be unpleasant for the participant. This is true to the extent that one researcher observed that participants actually could feel worse after one of Argyris’s workshops3 because they were not provided with a clear means of dealing with their inconsistencies.

Pros:

Even if the technique is limited in the extent to which it can truly reveal theory-practice inconsistencies, it may be able to reveal at least some of these. The authors’ inclusion of the actual dialogues that took place reflecting on the left-side, right-side exercise has some examples of this taking place. In my experience, these seem to be at least as effective as asking direct questions.

Further, if we are to believe that critical thinking, especially the kind that leads us to question our values or views of the world, can be a painful experience4, then a technique that is not capable of revealing all of these might actually be desirable and allow crucial time for reflection and adaptation, especially if the extent of the inconsistency is extreme.

For example, I recall once in my 20s being told I was an arrogant pig in a classroom debate about pirates and being quite shocked, as I had always espoused values that were not piggish. It took several weeks of reflection to accept that I had, in fact, been a pig by failing to acknowledge the views of my classmate. While distressing, the realization allowed me to grow and take corrective action by apologizing. However, if the extent of the inconsistencies between ‘my talk’ and ‘my walk’ at that time, even on that particular day (to not mention the deficiencies in both), had been revealed all at once, it probably would have crippled me for life.

Addressing the limitations of the technique:

Every methodology is limited. I think the left-side, right-side technique can be a useful exercise, and that its limitations can be addressed to some degree by:

  1. Including a means of direct observation (e.g. action research)

  2. Corroborating with other accounts of observation

  3. Providing participants with a means of dealing with their own theory-practice inconsistencies

  1. From Argyris, C., & Schön, D. A. (1996). Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, pp. 78-79. ↩︎

  2. Greenwood, J. (1993). Reflective practice: a critique of the work of Argyris and Schön. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 18, 1183–1187. ↩︎

  3. Edmonson, A. C. (1996). Three Faces of Eden: The persistence of competing theories and multiple diagnoses in organizational intervention research. Human Relations, 49(5), 571–595. ↩︎

  4. Diamond, M. A. (1986). Resistance to change: A pscyhoanalytic critique of Argyris and Schon’s contributions to organizational theory and intervention. Journal of Management Studies, 23(5), 543–562. ↩︎