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  • Writer's pictureKathy Miles

The Ladder of Inference

Have you ever found yourself:

  • Jumping to conclusions about why something has occurred?

  • Making rash decisions without thinking things through fully?

  • Acting based on how something made you feel?

  • Assuming the worst possible reason for a person’s actions?

It is safe to say that you are not alone, this is something that many of us do every day. In the workplace, we are often driven to make quick decisions and act immediately. The danger in this, is that we act based on our assumptions, conclusions or beliefs without actually verifying that these are based on fact.

These very skills that employers value can often lead to unnecessary conflict, poor decisions and unhappy employees.

What is the Ladder of Inference?

The Ladder of Inference was first developed by Chris Argyris in 1990 and is a process that people tend to follow between experiencing something and taking action.

The Ladder of Inference can help you to understand the steps that can lead you to jump to the wrong conclusions and can therefore help you ensure that your actions and decisions are based on fact.

The Ladder of Inference Steps:

The steps of the ladder are:

The Ladder of Inference

  1. Data: This is what we observe and experience – the facts and reality.

  2. Meanings: This is the meaning we give to the data which is based on our own personal beliefs, background and experiences.

  3. Assumptions: This is the assumptions that we apply based on the meaning.

  4. Conclusions: This is the conclusions that we draw based on the interpreted facts and our assumptions.

  5. Beliefs: This is the beliefs we develop based on the conclusions.

  6. Actions: This is the action that we take based on what we believe.

We always start at the bottom of the ladder and move up, sometimes in a matter of seconds. We can also often skip steps on the ladder, which means that we can form beliefs and take action without testing our assumptions and conclusions.

Depending on our personal beliefs, backgrounds and experiences, we can also tend to make negative assumptions about other people’s actions and motives, without actually taking the time to verify their assumptions with the people involved.

By focussing on each step of the ladder individually, we can ensure that we verify our thoughts and feelings along the way so that we then act based on the facts involved. This will prevent acting or reacting irrationally or emotionally to a situation.

Ladder of Inference Examples:

Let’s have a look at some examples below and how quick it is to take action without checking facts.

Example 1:

Jane is a team leader who has been asked by her manager Peter to run all changes to the team past him first.

  1. Data: I must run any changes I want to make to the team past Peter first.

  2. Meaning: My manager doesn’t trust me.

  3. Assumption: My manager doesn’t think I’m doing a good job.

  4. Conclusion: I’m going to lose my job.

  5. Belief: I’m not valued or appreciated as an employee.

  6. Action: Look for work elsewhere.

In this example, Jane has quickly jumped from Peter not trusting her to looking for work elsewhere. This can be prevented by Jane sitting down with Peter and finding out why he has made this request. There could be any number of reasons he has made this request, but often we jump to the worst scenario first. By checking our facts and verifying the data, we ensure that any actions that may be taken are based on fact.

Example 2:

Rebecca and Susan were deep in conversation when Davey walked into the room. As soon as they saw him they stopped and looked suspicious.

  1. Data: Rebecca and Susan stopped talking when I walked in the room.

  2. Meaning: Rebecca and Susan were talking about me.

  3. Assumption: Rebecca and Susan don’t like me.

  4. Conclusion: I can’t trust them.

  5. Belief: My colleagues don’t want me to succeed.

  6. Action: I should withhold information from them so they look bad at work.

In this example, Davey has quickly jumped to the action of trying to sabotage Rebecca and Susan without testing his assumptions. This would lead to all types of workplace conflict.

The danger is that it doesn’t take moving up the ladder too quickly to create our own self-fulfilling prophecy. There could be significant consequences due to the actions you take on mis-information and you may find that the beliefs, assumptions and conclusions you came to really do start to happen.

If you find yourself getting upset about something, ask yourself if you may have gone up the Ladder of Inference too quickly. Question the meaning, the assumptions and conclusions you have come to. This might mean that you have to go back to the people involved and ask them for more information or ask some questions to come to a sound conclusion based on fact, not emotion or assumption.

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