“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?
Frequent fliers may look back on 2017 as the year those supposedly “friendly skies” turned into “chaotic clouds.”
The list of airlines in trouble seemed to grow by the day, whether it was cancelled flights that led to near riots, prize rabbits dying in the cargo hold or roughed up passengers who declined to be bumped from their seats. Something definitely has been amiss in the airline industry.
Beyond getting past the negative media coverage, if an airline, or any company for that matter, wants to right the foundering ship, someone should do a deep dive into the company culture.
Any business leader needs to understand that their ultimate success starts with what happens on the inside of the organization. If the people inside the company aren’t aligned and in synch with the company’s values and goals, the result will be confusion and turmoil that eventually will affect the brand’s overall performance. A few airlines are experiencing those impacts right now, but so do plenty of other businesses as well.
3 steps to get company culture back on track
A lot of time, effort, and work goes into setting things right when culture goes awry, but there’s three important steps that should be taken right away. Those steps are:
Strive for organizational clarity.
The most critical ingredient to achieving business success is clarity, and that includes clarity of the organization’s purpose, vision, and the roles of those involved in carrying out that purpose and vision. If leaders are fuzzy on the goals they have for a business or organization, then those charged with accomplishing those goals are less likely to succeed
Keep things positive.
Keeping an upbeat atmosphere is essential to a company’s culture. You want your employees to be happy. If you can find a way to encourage a positive outlook and attitude, employees will be more motivated and will perform their jobs better.
Search out what’s right in the company.
When businesses want to improve, they typically focus on what’s wrong or what’s broken. It just seems to make sense to address head-on whatever difficulty has arisen. This approach should be flipped on its head. The right question isn’t What are we doing wrong? It’s What are we doing right?What are the great nuggets inside that organization that can take us to a different place, to a different height?’
If you understand where the company culture is right, you can duplicate those practices in the areas where the problems are.
Just about any company will hit a bumpy stretch somewhere along the way. When that happens, it may be time to explore its culture, re-evaluate how it operates, and re-imagine what its future can be.
Brad Deutser is president of Deutser LLC, a consulting firm that advises leaders and organizations about achieving clarity especially in times of transition, growth or crisis.
Have you ever wanted something to be soooooooo perfect that you ended up doing nothing?
Recently that’s been the situation with me and my blog. I know I need to write a post or two, yet day after day goes by and I write nothing. Zip. Nada. That’s an outcome that gives me two gremlins to wrestle with—not having any blog posts written AND feeling bad about myself.
I finally found relief after remembering some advice literary agent Rachelle Gardnerhad shared with me. “To be a better writer,” Rachelle said. “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings.” I had a darling to get rid of.
In writing, the phrase “kill your darlings” means removing something precious that doesn’t move the story along.
My “darling” was believing that everything I wrote had to be profound. That mindset wasn’t moving me anywhere and, in fact,placed crazy pressure on me. Pressure that was self-imposed. Pressure that stemmed from believing something, then forging ahead, thinking but without really thinking.
Belief is when someone else does the thinking. ~Buckminster Fuller
A strongly-held belief is a strength. Yet sometimes that same belief can also become a weakness. If a belief has hardened into dogma, that is, believing our position is the only correct one, than we’re in trouble because we’re not thinking critically about our thinking.
My position that all my writing had to be profound is a perfect illustration of what Drs. Linda Elder and Richard Paulcall the “inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked,” i.e., when critical thinking is absent.
What critical thinking …
“…is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.” ~ Dr. Linda Elder
“…is thinking about one’s thinking in a manner designed to organize and clarify, raise the efficiency of, and recognize errors and biases in one’s own thinking. One uses critical thinking to improve one’s process of thinking.” ~ Kirby Carmichael
“…calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends.” ~ Edward M. Glaser, PhD
7 actions to follow to take control of your thoughts
Drs. Elder and Paul suggest doing seven things to assure we’re thinking critically. I used their actions to review my “unchecked” thought processes:
Explore thoughts underlying feelings and feelings underlying thoughts. I believe my writing must always be profound and inspiring or I’ll feel like I have failed.
Develop intellectual humility and suspend judgment. Isn’t the mindset of always writing something profound rather self-congratulatory when you stop to think about it?
Develop intellectual perseverance. Why must my writing always be profound? Why can’t I write for fun, to educate or just to share?
Clarify issues, conclusions, or beliefs. OK, Jane, reflect on what happens if a piece of writing isn’t profound. Can’t people learn just as well from something simple? Not everything has to be intense, earnest, and researched endlessly. In fact, not all writing needs to teach.
Questioning deeply: raise and pursue root or significant questions. Why am I so insistent on depth and complexity?
Examine or evaluate assumptions. I want to make a difference and help others do the same. I want the world to react first with kindness rather than rancor. That means change, which is complex and requires deep thinking. Sure it does, however inspiration and learning can spring from lightness, too. Not everything meaningful has to be forceful.
Give reasons, and evaluate evidence and alleged facts. Look at all the articles that take a light-hearted approach and are successful. Not everything has to be deep and full of meaning.
Their process worked. When I took the time (that and a sprinkling of self-reflection fuel the process) to think about my thoughts, I realized I was being arbitrary. I’m going to walk through those seven steps more often!
Too often we… enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. ~John F. Kennedy
What about you? Has your own thinking ever tripped you up? How did you manage the situation?
Today’s guest contributor is Richard Lindenmuth, who has walked the interim leader path more than once in multiple industries. He has over 30 years general management experience, is Chairman of the Association of Interim Executives, and author of The Outside the Box Executive.
Here’s a familiar story of late: A company’s leader has to step down, for any number of reasons, and the board of directors appoints an Interim CEO. Recent examples include United Airlines, DuPont and Twitter—where Interim CEO Jack Dorsey recently became CEO.
Let’s be clear: an interim CEO is not the same as a CEO even though there are many intersecting skills.
An interim executive parachutes in, takes charge, assuages fears, restores confidence, troubleshoots immediate to systemic problems, takes action, and plots direction—fast.(more…)
It’s no surprise to some that people who dislike their boring-but-safe, 9-to-5 jobs tend to be unsatisfied and unsuccessful in their careers. I believe that’s true because the first ingredient to success is doing what you’re passionate about.
We all need money to get by, but if you ever have the opportunity to take a chance and do what you actually love, take it.
If you don’t like what you do, you will tend to have an aversion to doing what it takes to be very successful. Without passion, it’s almost impossible to distinguish yourself. If you keep your boring and safe job, you can keep your boring and safe income, but I don’t know how happy you’ll be. (more…)
When it comes to work these days, we’re all expected to do more with less–but is this nose-to-the-grindstone philosophy the best way to run a business? Alarmingly low employee engagement numbers indicate otherwise.
So, if pushing everyone harder isn’t the path to productivity, what is?
I believe that our best work is the product of a positive environment. How it feels to work within an organization is a critical workforce development issue.
We need more leaders who are willing to choose to set a positive tone for their teams despite what senior management isn’t doing.(more…)