In our last blog, we discussed how we can benefit more from treating people like humans at work, than from developing robots that have human characteristics as is portrayed in so many movies.
One of the challenges that scare many leaders is dealing with employees as humans. As a leader you must manage your own thought processes and behaviors, which can be challenging enough, and deal with the behaviors of your employees on top of that. This is especially tough when dealing with sensitive topics or making decisions that surface different opinions and strong emotional reactions.
The Ladder (Model) Comes to Your Rescue
The Ladder of Inference is a handy tool in understanding and evaluating reactions and behaviors in the workplace. If you can understand the thought processes that drive behavior, you can take steps to ensure that you communicate effectively and encourage positive, productive behavior from your employees.
What is the Ladder of Inference?
The Ladder was developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon to explain how we make inferences and reason about what is happening to us in the world. It explains how we make sense of the world, and allows us to question the facts we pay attention to, our beliefs, and ultimately our actions. It also examines our thought processes that produce vicious cycles, such as discriminatory behavior or road rage, as well as positive cycles such as ‘pay it forward’ actions.
As with any ladder, the higher you go up the Ladder of Inference, the further you are from the safety of the ground. Here are the seven rungs of the ladder:
Rung #1 – Observe.
The lowest rung of the ladder is where we gather data from the world. Think of a video camera recording your life at work. This is simply your observations, and nothing more.
Rung #2 – Select.
Because there is too much data to take in completely, the next rung is where you select some of the data to observe based on it’s importance to you. We choose data based on filters such as our own beliefs, values, and expectations. A good example of this is suddenly noticing all the cars on the highway that are the same model as the one you might buy.
Rung #3 – Meanings.
We describe the data based on our own words and apply our own meaning to the data we selected.
Rung #4 – Assumptions.
We ‘explain’ the data based on our own assumptions. For example, you might assume someone pulled out in front of you on the highway having clearly seen you, but made a dangerous move.
Rung #5 – Conclusions.
We make conclusions that are consistent with our explanation. This is where you might find yourself saying, “He did it because he’s a jerk and doesn’t value safety.” We evaluate the other person’s behavior against our own beliefs and values.
Rung #6 – Beliefs.
This is where we adopt or reinforce certain beliefs we have about the world. This in effect becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as our beliefs reinforce the data that we choose to observe. It has become a loop, which can be challenging to break as we have seen with long-term, discriminatory behavior. An example of this is having the belief that all young men who drive pick-up trucks are jerks.
Rung #7 – Action.
The final rung is action. This is where we decide whether we should respond, or how we respond, to the another person’s behavior. In our example, we might honk at the other driver.
As you know, the higher you get on a ladder, the more your safety is at risk. The same is true of the ladder of inference. The higher we get on the ladder of inference, the further we are from reality and more at risk of taking action based on limited information, beliefs, and views of the world. In most situations, this saves time and won’t have negative consequences. At other times, it will lead to unproductive behavior and harmful results.
The Ladder of Inference at Work
Let’s say you are working on a project and need data from Joe. You send him several emails and voicemails, but he doesn’t respond. Then, you remember that you disagreed with his approach on another project and you never did reach a conclusion. You decide that he is avoiding you, and that he has poor teamwork skills. You also decide that he doesn’t like you and never has. The next time he needs help; you are going to be ‘too busy.’ Then, you start looking for other examples of poor teamwork from Joe, and you tell others about his ‘attitude.’ The next time you see him, you give him a dirty look. You see that he notices and looks surprised. (Did he ignore your data request on purpose or was he suddenly called away on a family emergency?)
How Can You Use the Ladder of Inference?
The example above may seem extreme, but we have all done something similar or seen it play out. Isn’t that how road rage happens? Being aware of the ladder is the first step, here are suggestion on how to use the ladder to your advantage:
- Consider a disagreement you are having with someone else. Is there a difference in the assumptions or meanings you are each applying?
- Be clear about your reasoning by making each rung of the ladder visible to others. What data are you using, what does the data mean, what are your assumptions and conclusions, etc.?
- When you are at a stalemate with someone, ask that person to explain their position by having them walk up or down the ladder. If you ask genuine questions, most people will talk through their logic.
- When you are making a judgment about someone’s intent or behavior, question the data you are using to make that judgment. Start by naming the behavior.
- When you find you are having a strong emotional reaction to a situation, try to step back to assess the situation and what is driving the reaction. Ideally, you would have time to step away from the situation and reassess, starting with your observations.
When you can do the above, you can introduce the model to your employees and discuss how the ladder works and how you can use the ladder to discuss team interactions.
Do you have any examples of climbing the ladder?