Leading with the Ladder of Inference, Part 2

Last week, we discussed leading with the Ladder of Inference and looked at a situation where “climbing” the Ladder led to unintended consequences. 

To refresh your memory, here are the rungs of the Ladder from bottom to top:

  1. We use our senses to make observations about situations and experiences. 
  2. We select significant data and let the rest of the information fall away. 
  3. We use our existing experiences to contextualize words, actions, and body language. 
  4. We make assumptions about someone else’s behavior. 
  5. We conclude why a situation is occurring. 
  6. We allow those conclusions to shape our beliefs about people’s behavior. 
  7. We take action based on those beliefs. 

As we wrap up, you’ll be equipped with reflection questions to help you make decisions informed by reality, data, and facts rather than bias and assumption. We’ll also look at how a single, open-ended question can transform your interactions with your team. 

Leading with the Ladder of Inference Means Making Better Decisions

If you boil the theories behind leading with the Ladder of Inference down to its most essential takeaway, it’s this: The higher you are, the more removed from reality your decisions will be. A leader should stay as deeply rooted in reality as possible when making a decision. That’s the only way to prevent personal biases and beliefs from affecting your relationships with your team.

Before jumping directly to acting based on your conclusions, you can avoid misunderstandings by slowing down the inference process and taking deliberate steps to understand a situation better.

You can walk yourself back down the Ladder and fill in information gaps by asking yourself questions like:

  1. What other observations have I made about this person that might contradict my current feelings about them?
  2. What similar situations have I encountered that influence how I react?
  3. What assumptions am I making about the motivations behind the other person’s actions? Is it possible that these assumptions are false?
  4. What context and meaning am I adding to this situation that’s making me feel so frustrated, angry, or upset?
  5. What other data sources can I seek– including the person I’m in conflict with– that can help me better understand the situation?

Case Study: Using the Ladder Effectively 

In the last article on using the Ladder of Inference, we discussed a situation between Angela and David that ended poorly because a leader used her personal beliefs to inform her actions. 

As a counterexample, let’s look at how leaders can use the Ladder to stop conflict before it escalates. 

Phillip is taking the lead on an upcoming software development project. His team will consist of several testers, developers, coders, and designers that he’ll choose from the various departments. He intends to ask Danielle, a coder, to work with him. 

Phillip schedules a meeting with his team selections to get everyone on board. Danielle seems antsy and frustrated as he rolls out the project. She’s tapping her pen against notebook, glancing out of the window, and has a general look of displeasure. Phillip is irritated by this, as she seems disengaged and disinterested. 

After the meeting, Phillip asks Danielle to stay back for a moment so they can talk. He decides to start with an open-ended question to gather more data. 

Phillip: “What’d you think about the project?”

Danielle: “It looks really interesting! I’m worried about the deadline, though.”

Phillip: “I know, it’s tight. I’m a little worried about it too, but I think we can get it done if everyone’s collaborating and willing to put some time in after hours.”

Danielle: “That’s the part that has me particularly concerned. I’m usually fine with working after hours, but my husband’s out of town for the next two weeks. Usually, he’s the one that picks up the kids after school, takes them to their activities, and handles dinner when I’m busy with work. There’s no way I can juggle both of these plates by myself.”

Phillip: “Oh! Thank you for letting me know! How about this? You do what you can while you’re in the office, and I’ll pull a second coder in to handle anything you’d have to take home.”

Danielle: “That’s a great idea. Thanks so much.”

By gathering more data before taking action, Phillip could stay low on the ladder. 

He prevented conflict with Danielle, frustration over unmet deadlines, risk of burning out his coder, and showed that he was a rational person who valued Danielle as a human being with a life outside of the office. 

Final Thoughts

When leaders create a work culture grounded in seeking to understand rather than decisive, uninformed action, they build an environment where conflicts are resolved quickly and rationally. 

Teams work best when everyone feels free to express their reasonable objections, mitigating circumstances and uncertainties without fear of repercussion. Remember that you set the tone for how your team communicates, and it’s far more productive to cultivate empathy, curiosity, and rationality. 

As we head into the new year, think about what kind of leader you want to be and seek out the resources to help you achieve it. Investing in yourself can generate innumerable returns and propel your professional success. 

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