The Ladder of Inference: Improve Communications and Relationships in the Workplace

Have you ever stopped to think about the things that you just inherently know and how you know them? Have you ever wished that the people you work with could just inherently know what you know too? Wouldn’t working together be easier if you could be on the same page and pull from the same set of experiences all of the time?

The Ladder of Inference, developed by Chris Argyris, is a tool we can use to test and better understand the assumptions of others, as well as ourselves, for mutual and clearer understanding.

In the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Rick Ross states, “We live in a world of self-generating beliefs which remain largely untested. We adopt those beliefs because they are based on conclusions, which are inferred from what we observe, plus our past experience. Our ability to achieve the results we truly desire is eroded by our feelings that:

  • Our beliefs are the truth.
  • The truth is obvious.
  • Our beliefs are based on real data.
  • The data we select are the real data.” (Senge, Ross, Smith, Roberts, & Kleiner, 1994)

When we feel that our beliefs are the truth, and the truth is obvious, and that our beliefs are based on real data and the data we select are the real data, this is referred to as climbing, leaping, or jumping up the Ladder of Inference.

Understanding the Ladder of Inference can help you rebuild your ability to achieve results by investigating your thoughts and the thoughts of others, and then communicating and inquiring for better understanding.

Climbing the Ladder

  1. The first rung of the ladder references all of the data observed from an experience the way a video recording would capture it.
  2. Of course, one person can’t take in all of the data that is happening at, say a staff meeting with multiple people present, so in the second rung, we select the data that we’re going to observe, remember, and pay attention to.
  3. Next you add meaning to the selected data based on past experiences, your culture, lessons learned, and a myriad of other personal experiences.
  4. On the fourth rung of the ladder, you make assumptions based on the meanings you added to your selected data.
  5. You then draw conclusions based on your assumptions.
  6. These conclusions form the basis of the beliefs you adopt about the world.
  7. Finally, you take action based on your beliefs.

There can be reflexive behavior that reinforces the link between beliefs and data. Our beliefs lead us to make choices as to which data we select. For example, if you believe that you coworker Tom, never comes to meetings prepared, the next time you are in a meeting together you will select the data that reinforces your belief that he never comes to meetings prepared. There is also reinforcing behavior that link actions to observable data; meaning that the actions we take lead to situations that provide more observable data that reinforce our assumptions, conclusions, beliefs, and actions.

Using the Ladder to Improve Communication

To use the Ladder of Inference to test your own beliefs you simply just climb down the ladder in a mode of inquiry to test your assumptions and conclusions. When testing assumptions it’s important to find contrary data and understand what data you selected and avoided. Rick Ross provides the following questions you can ask yourself and others to better understand your own assumptions, beliefs, and actions.

  • What is the observable data behind that statement?
  • Does everyone agree on what the data is?
  • Can you run me through your reasoning?
  • How did we get from that data to these abstract assumptions?
  • When you said, [your inference], did you mean [my interpretation of it]? (Senge, Ross, Smith, Roberts, & Kleiner, 1994)

With an open mind, and a desire to understand other data points, this exercise can definitely help you understand yourself and others better and form the basis for a pattern of dialog with colleagues that seem difficult to work with.

The Society of Organizational Learning is a source for more information about the Ladder of Inference.

By Contributing Writer – Erica Tetuan, Senior Associate, Changeis, Inc. 

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