“I never thought I’d get in trouble for doing what I thought was the right thing,” lamented Sally. “I really thought my boss would appreciate that I dug in and got the whole story.”
Reba was Sally’s boss. She was also the department head, directly supervising ten people who, in turn, managed 180 employees. She was a busy woman who relied heavily on the judgment of her direct reports.
Keith was one of those direct reports. He had told Reba that one of his employees, Trina, had refused to lead a discussion with hourly employees.
Conducting those discussion was the responsibility of the quality team. Being on the quality team was a prestigious skill development assignment only available to high potential employees
Wrong turn #1
Keith said he believed that Trina had refused to lead the discussion because he suspected that she was trying to avoid what she now saw as extra, unpaid work. Keith recommended to Reba that Trina be removed from the quality team.
Wrong turn #2
Reba gave Keith the OK to remove her.
Trina was deeply hurt when Keith told her she was off the quality team. She asked if there was anything she could do to change her removal. Keith told her there wasn’t.
Several years earlier, Trina had worked on Sally’s team. Because they had a good relationship, Trina asked to meet one-on-one with Sally. Sally agreed.
In that meeting, Trina said she was going to quit because she didn’t want to work for a company that wasn’t understanding.
“I told Keith I didn’t feel up to leading the discussion because of a family matter.”
“What did Keith do after you told him that?” Asked Sally.
“All he did was nod his head and walk away. My impression is that he didn’t ask for more details because he wanted to honor my privacy. I appreciated that. Keith didn’t speak to me again until he told me that I was being removed from the quality team.”
“I know you appreciated Keith not asking more questions about your family matter. Are you comfortable giving me a few more details so I can better understand how your family matter impacted your ability to lead the quality discussion?”
“My father had a flare-up of an ongoing and long-term illness. The doctor told the family that he had less than three months to live. I was struggling to cope with that news and wasn’t at my best that week. Getting my own job done was almost more than I could handle.”
Concerned for several reasons, Sally approached Reba with this information.
Wrong turn #3
After hearing the added detail, Reba told Sally she was wrong to have interfered in Keith’s employee matter.
That evening, Reba told her husband about the situation. She was feeling remorseful and needed to talk it out.
She knew she’d acted harshly with Sally. She’d acted that way not because she was angry Sally had meddled, but because she was embarrassed for having agreed with Keith without having asked more questions.
Whatever their respective motivations, Keith, Reba, and Sally were all guilty of climbing the ladder of inference.
Reflect before jumping to a conclusion
Business theorist Chris Argyris created the ladder of inference, which is a model of how we think. To understand how the ladder of inference works, picture climbing a ladder that has seven rungs:
- The first step is us encountering data or a situation.
- The second step happens when we take something away from step one and decide to focus on it.
- We take step three when we assign meaning to what we’re focusing on.
- Step four occurs when we make an assumption based on the meaning we’ve given to what happened in step one.
- Step five is when we draw a conclusion based on our assumption.
- Step six is us using our conclusion to affirm an old belief or develop a new one.
- Step seven finds us taking action based on our belief.
The climb to the top of the ladder of inference is one we take alone, which makes it a dangerous climb.
As we ascend from one rung to the next, we rely on our personal beliefs, values, opinions, past experiences, etc. to reach a conclusion that seems natural, normal, and right to us.
Sometimes our conclusion is spot on, but sometimes we’re wrong. Really, really wrong.
When we’re really wrong and are beating ourselves up for not being more thoughtful, remind yourself that the other party wasn’t in your head as you climbed the ladder of inference.
The person we’ve wronged don’t have a clue about the seven ladder steps we climbed without them…which means we feel misunderstood or unfairly accused as events spiral out of control.
Ask questions, then act
If you find yourself facing unintended consequences resulting from a decision you made, ask yourself a few questions to determine how far up the ladder of inference you scrambled.
- Do I really have enough information to think this way?
- Did I ask enough questions or do enough research to assure that I had all the facts?
- Could I have missed something?
- Is there something I’ve chosen to ignore?
- Is the meaning I’m giving to what happened truly objective or are my feelings and opinions about this person or situation driving my conclusions?
- Are my assumptions correct?
- Am I making something personal that isn’t?
- Are my own insecurities coloring what I’m thinking and feeling?
- Could an impartial third party suspect that a bias or two might be influencing me?
The best way to avoid the unintended consequences that result from climbing the ladder of inference is to avoid climbing it. Channel your emotions. Validate your feelings. Gather all the relevant information. Test your assumptions. Invite feedback on your conclusion. Then take action.
As you think, so you become. Avoid superstitiously investing events with power or meanings they don’t have. Keep your head. Our busy minds are forever jumping to conclusions, manufacturing and interpreting signs that aren’t there. ~Epictetus, philosopher, The Art of Living
Have you ever climbed the ladder of inference and done something you wished you hadn’t because it turned out your conclusion was wrong? Have you ever had someone attack or accuse you of wrong-doing because they incorrectly climbed the ladder of inference? How did you make things right?
Image credit (before quote): Pixabay