Leading with the Ladder of Inference, Part 1

The Ladder of Inference is a metacognitive model that that explains the thinking process people go through as they make judgments about certain situations and other people’s actions. It was created by Chris Argyris, a business theorist, in the 1970s as a way to help leaders make more informed decisions while avoiding cognitive bias.

The goal is to stay “low” on the ladder, basing your professional inferences on facts and data rather than allowing assumptions, personally-held beliefs, or past experiences to unduly influence your choices. It’s a method for self-checking that your decisions are based on the reality of any given situation, leading to more impartial outcomes. 

This week, we’ll look at what the Ladder of Inference is before diving into some additional case studies and methods for utilizing the tool coming after the holidays!

The Ladder of Inference: An Overview

As you can see, the Ladder of Inference consists of seven “rungs.” As we climb up, particular ideas start to solidify in our minds, creating systems of beliefs that later inform how we act in the future. 

The simplest way to think about the concept is in the context of phobias or an irrational fear of something. Take, for example, cynophobia, which is the extreme fear of dogs. 

In many cases, cynophobia develops after a harrowing event with a wayward hound, such as an aggressive dog chasing you when you rode your bike home after school when you were a kid. Based on that event, you now assume every dog has ill intentions, forming the belief that all dogs are meant to be feared and causing you to avoid them to this day.

While that is an extreme example, this mental model affects us more than we think. It crops up without you realizing it, causing you to make decisions based on beliefs rather than seeking to understand. In a professional setting, climbing too far up the Ladder of Inference can have serious consequences, especially when it affects your relationships with cohorts and employees. 

Setting the Scene

Because the Ladder of Inference is situational, it’s easiest to explain it through the lens of a realistic, everyday example. 

As mentioned earlier, we’ll look at several more of these in our next installment, but for now, we’ll need a framing circumstance to help create context. 

Angela is a departmental manager of a medium-sized architecture firm. She leads the design team, which consists of 12 people, the newest of whom– David– has been there for six months. 

While Angela finds it easy to interact with the rest of her team, David just rubs her the wrong way. He always turns down invitations for after-work social events, doesn’t participate in the group chat unless directly asked a question, and eats lunch alone in his office instead of joining the rest of his teammates. 

While no one has directly complained about David, the team has mentioned that he’s a bit of a downer during their usually lively work activities. Angela decides that he needs coaching to understand the work culture the design team is trying to cultivate, so she schedules a one-on-one with him.

As she explains the reason behind the meeting, David looks genuinely confused. He mentions that he’s a hard worker and produces excellent design drafts. He collaborates when needed, shows up on time, and maintains cordial professionalism. 

Angela agrees wholeheartedly but continues to push the issue, insisting that David work on joining in the camaraderie if he wants to continue working in her department. 

David cooly informs her that he refuses to be bullied into putting on a show when he has little interest in socially engaging with the group. He finds small talk exhausting and needs to unwind after work away from other people. He states that he wasn’t informed during his onboarding process that he would be required to engage with his coworkers outside of “talking shop,” and certainly not during his much-needed social recharge time. 

Angela tells him they’ll circle back around after they’ve had time to consider each other’s comments, but David tells her there’s no need, as he’s putting in his two weeks’ notice. 

Now, let’s look at how the Ladder of Inference explains what led to Angela’s actions and the inevitable consequence of making assumptions.  

Rung 1: Making Observations

Our five senses form the foundation of everything we understand about the world, and they’re constantly taking in stimuli that prompt us to move to the next rung. At this point, there is no processing or interpreting of the information. We are only taking it in. 

  • Angela’s observations are that David does not come out to social events, is a hard worker, never seeks out personal or friendly conversations, creates beautiful designs, has never been late for work, and always eats alone instead of with the rest of the group. 

Rung 2: Selecting Data

As we make observations, our brains start to filter out what we think is important and supports our pre-existing beliefs. It also disposes of information that contradicts or seems irrelevant, causing us to “not see the forest for the trees.” 

  • As time passes, Angela becomes hyperfocused on David’s “antisocial” behavior.

Rung 3: Contextualizing the Data

We naturally try to control the world around us by building “schemas,” or categories of information that go together. In order to make someone else’s behavior make sense, we use past situations to create a subjective context that seems correct based on our experiences. 

  • At her previous job, Angela worked in a very professional setting, where people worked largely independently and with little interpersonal interaction outside of necessary meetings. When she tried to chit-chat, she was politely ignored at best and patronized at worst. She felt unliked and ostracized to the point that she quit.

Rung 4: Making Assumptions

Once we’ve contextualized, we start to form assumptions, leaning on them as a justification for a situation we don’t understand. At this point, it’s difficult to see outside of our own perspective and seek out additional “evidence” to support what we think we know. 

  • Angela assumes that David doesn’t like anyone on the team and that he thinks he’s superior. He’d rather be miserable and alone, as long as it means not having to be around them.

Rung 5: Drawing Conclusions

Assumptions to lead drawing a conclusion about a situation, regardless of whether or not it’s true. These inferences will begin to change how we respond to a particular person or experience. 

  • “Well, if David doesn’t like the team, he shouldn’t be a part of it. I’ll give him one chance to get it together, or he’s out of here.”

Rung 6: Adopting Beliefs

At the point that we’re turning our conclusions into beliefs, we are actively turning part-truths into our reality and developing a cognitive bias. Now, when you encounter a similar situation later, you will feel even further assured that these behaviors mean what you think they mean.

From there, you develop a sort of echo chamber in which your beliefs guide your decision-making, and you use those decisions to dig your heels in deeper about your beliefs. 

  • Angela develops a belief that anyone unwilling to commit to certain social “teambuilding” activities in and out of work isn’t a good fit for her design department, as they bring down team morale regardless of how good they are at their job. 

Rung 7: Taking Action

The last step is the most fatal in a professional setting, where you take a particular action that will likely have unintended consequences. 

  • To get her team back to its normal level of fun and friendly energy, Angela gives David the ultimatum of acting a certain way or losing his job. 

Where Do You Stand on the Ladder of Inference?

The sad reality is that some leaders live on the top rung of the Ladder of Inference, making rash choices and refusing to allow others to give their side of the story or defend themselves. Often, this happens without them realizing it, as they have complete faith that their beliefs are based on observation, data, and prior experiences. 

The good news is that by becoming more aware of your cognitive biases and how they came about, you can begin to reconstruct your beliefs and empower yourself to take a more equitable, thoughtful approach to your professional choices. 

Don’t forget to check back in a couple of weeks for Part 2!

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