Working the Ladder of Inference: Part 1

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Jeff Cole

In an earlier article, I mentioned being able to employ the ladder of inference in your change efforts. The ladder was developed by Chris Argyris in Overcoming Organizational Defenses and later referenced by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. While this is well worth an investment of your time to read a more detailed explanation, the goal this month is to get the ladder of inference on your radar screen along with a couple examples of how it might be used to do what change management professionals call "reframing."

The Scenario

Consider a scenario: Newlywed couple. It’s their first anniversary. The husband is making a special dinner, and the wife promises to be home at 6:00 sharp to join him (even though it’s her usual night for a Happy Hour with co-workers). 6:00 comes and goes — no wife. 6:30 — still no wife. 7:12 — the wife walks in. If you were the husband, how would you greet the wife? With a "Thank goodness you’re ok — I was afraid something happened to you" or perhaps an angry "I knew you would forget about our dinner — hope you enjoy sleeping on the porch"?

The Ladder of Inference

In that scenario, the reply you choose is driven by your personal walk up the ladder of inference. Many people don’t realize it, but we are constantly engaged in an internal dialogue with ourselves as we observe the world around us. Our observations drive our thoughts, which drive our actions. This all happens in a rather well-laid out sequence as described by the ladder of inference. Simply being aware of the ladder of inference is of value, but mastering the ladder can be of great value in managing change in your Six Sigma projects. (Click on image to enlarge.)

How the Ladder of Inference Works

Starting at the bottom of the ladder we observe data and happenings. Based on the filters through which we view life, we focus in on a subset of what we see. What we each choose to focus on may differ. Now the fun begins — based on the culture you grew up in, your current culture, and your life experiences to date, you begin to attach meaning to what you have focused on. Next, you make assumptions based on those meanings. Based on those assumptions, you draw conclusions. From there, you adopt beliefs supported by those conclusions and your actions are driven by your beliefs. It doesn’t end there though, as your beliefs act as a strong filter influencing what you focus on. Thus, it is a self-feeding cycle.

Think about our scenario. The husband observes a number of things and chooses to focus on his spouse arriving home 72 minutes late. That’s all we really know for certain. Anything beyond that depends upon how one marches up the ladder. He may go up one path leading to assumptions that his spouse is treating him unkindly. Yet another path may lead to assumptions of his spouse being in peril. How he treats her and what he says upon her arrival is driven strongly by his journey up the ladder.

So What?

You’re rolling out a Six Sigma project change and meet a wall of resistance. You may be confused on why people are resisting, and you want to succeed in your change. First, note that you and your team are intimately familiar with and involved in creating this change. You have already all climbed the ladder of inference and concluded that this change is the best thing the company has seen since the invention of "casual day." Your team may have a level of excitement and pride in ownership that others do not (yet) share. Second, all we really know at this stage is what we can observe. Perhaps people are not following the process, or you have some verbal/written feedback that can clearly and objectively be viewed as negative toward the change.

To address this, we may first invoke Stephen Covey’s fifth habit from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand before being understood. First, understand why the audience is resisting. Be careful how you personally escalate up the ladder of inference as you interpret what you observe. Maybe some key people didn’t attend an important meeting — there may be multiple reasons why. Ensure the behaviors and people you target are truly resisting. If you can isolate legitimate resistance (resisting a process can manifest in various ways and needs to be validated as actual resistance), know that the resistant actions you observe in others are driven by their beliefs, conclusions, and assumptions as they climbed the ladder of inference.

If you want to change the target audience’s thoughts and actions, employing the ladder of inference can be effective. You have little chance of directly changing someone’s beliefs. We can however, logically walk them down the ladder of inference, help them alter their focus, change their assumptions, clarify meanings, and allow them to go back up the ladder, arriving at different conclusions which can eliminate resistant actions. In the world of organizational change this is sometimes called "reframing."

Next month, we’ll take a closer look at the reframing activity using the ladder of inference. Until then, I invite you to keep an eye out for one or two instances in your life over the next month and see how the ladder of inference applies. Once you are good at spotting it in action, you’ll be ready for our next installment.