What kind of ladder are we talking about?
The Ladder of Inference is a model which explains why we tend to ‘jump to conclusions’ when we are faced with a particular circumstance. Initially developed by Chris Argyris, and later used by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline”, the Ladder of Inference describes how we make sequential interpretations from a set of observations, form beliefs, and then commit to take actions based on those beliefs. It is as if we rapidly climb up a mental ladder, drawing conclusions on our own, with little or no data to actually support these conclusions. Finally, we end up taking actions based on these conclusions which almost always causes breakdown of communication.
I have given an assignment to my team mate Rashmi and have specified the deadline for the same. I feel that the assignment is not too difficult and the time given to finish the assignment is adequate. The deadline comes and goes, without any response from Rashmi. I write a mail to her reminding her that the assignment was due. She however, does not get back to me with any explanation for the delay. The following day, I receive an SMS from her informing me that she is unwell and will not be able to make it to office for a couple of days. I immediately link this with the unfinished assignment and think to myself that Rashmi is faking an illness in order to get away from the deadline. That’s why she avoided talking to me and just sent me a message instead. I start to recall that she did not seem too enthusiastic about taking this assignment up. Maybe she felt that this assignment was a burden and hence did not consider it important.I figure out that she is clearly not interested in taking up additional responsibilities. She is also very irresponsible since she did not get back to me with a response on the stipulated timeline. Based on these beliefs, I decide never to include Rashmi in any new assignments in the future. I start to behave very curtly with her after she is back from her leave. And even though she finally does a very good job on the assignment, I never include her in any future projects and continue to maintain very low levels of trust in her.
Here is the ladder I climbed in my sub consciousness in the episode with Rashmi.
So how do we avoid leaping up the Ladder of Inference?
We can avoid ‘jumping to conclusions’ by remembering the following three points:
Reflection: By becoming more aware of our own thinking and reasoning (Is it fair to judge Rashmi based on non-conclusive data?)
Advocacy: By making our thinking and reasoning more visible to others ie. saying what we are thinking. (Explaining to my colleague why I don’t give Rashmi any more additional responsibilities and checking whether my reasoning is correct?)
Inquiry: Inquiring about other’s thinking and reasoning ie. asking questions to understand others’ thinking. (Asking Rashmi - Is there any reason why you did not respond to my communications on the assignment deadline? Do you feel that additional responsibilities are a burden for you?)
Along with being more conscious of our own reasoning, the use of advocacy and inquiry in the right manner should promote understanding between the parties. For e.g. had I used advocacy and inquiry with Rashmi, I would have found out that she had been extremely unwell in office the day before the assignment deadline and hence had not been able to respond to my communications. She had left me a voicemail on my phone, which I had unfortunately missed. Even though, she had almost completed the assignment, she had been unable to complete the last bit by the deadline set. And contrary to what I thought, she was extremely interested in taking up additional assignments in order to increase her learning.
What role does this ladder play in the communication process?
Understanding this ladder and incorporating our understanding into daily practices can be a pivotal component of a learning organization. It gives people ways to self-check the various interpretations of events, which in turn will prevent breakdown of communication. As Chris Argyris cautions people, when a fact seems self-evident, it requires us to be especially careful. However, the use of advocacy and inquiry in the right proportion is very important. A ‘high’ of either of these two, can lead to a one way communication instead of a two way understanding.
The ability to make deductions from available data and information is an important cognitive skill. The Ladder of Inference shows to us both the power as well as the dangers of this ability, and can help us differentiate between its use and its misuse. When embedded into teams as a regular practice, this ladder helps in eliminating lack of understanding between team mates, break down of communication and feeble compromises.
- Argyris, C, “Overcoming Organizational Defences”, 1992.
- Senge P, “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook”, 1994.
- Larcher, B, “Up and Down the Ladder of Inference”, 2007 .
- Brown, Y, “The Ladder of Inference” .
- Kofman F, “The Ladder of Inference: How to Avoid Climbing to Unwarranted Conclusions”, 1996.