Working the Ladder of Inference: Part 2

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Jeff Cole

Last month we made you aware of a vital change management aid called the Ladder of Inference. Did you do your homework and find examples of the ladder in action? After a few tries you can become pretty adept at spotting how people use the ladder. Equally important is understanding how you personally (and unconsciously) use the ladder. This month we’ll discuss use of the ladder of inference to aid in helping to adjust people’s frame of reference when they resist a Six Sigma process change.


When confronted with people resisting your process change, one of the first actions you might consider is understanding why they are resisting. It may be they are not able to follow the process and you can remove some roadblocks for them. Alternatively, they may not be willing to adopt the change, in which case you want to learn more about their thought process. By bringing transparency to our own thought process and others’, we can develop deeper understanding behind resistant actions and make progress faster.

Some Six Sigma Black Belts choose to simply advocate change regardless of their audience. Advocating a change is the process of sharing your thought process as you climb UP the ladder of inference — in essence building a case for the change from your perspective. This alone is a poor strategy. However, if coupled with inquiry, together they become a powerful approach. Inquiry is the process of walking someone DOWN the ladder of inference by asking non-threatening questions that help to uncover his thought process. If he holds a strong opinion, inquiry will help uncover the assumptions, logic, and data upon which he made his conclusions, which in turn drove his behavior. Rather than a brute-force approach of relentless advocacy (which tends to drive resistance underground), address the situation first using inquiry. Then, in a non-defensive manner you can advocate — make your thought process transparent by describing how you arrived at your conclusions (your walk up the ladder).



Attempting to directly change someone’s beliefs or behaviors (long term) is a tough battle. Your probability of success increases the farther you can draw the discussion down the ladder. Reframing in a change management context involves first uncovering the data and assumptions on which someone has focused (i.e. his frame of reference) at the bottom of the ladder of inference. Then it involves offering alternative interpretations of the data, a focus on different data, or alternate assumptions based on that data. If the new assumptions and focus are compelling, there is a good chance the resistant person will walk back up the ladder with a new focus and assumptions, draw different conclusions, and in turn be less resistant.

According to Daryl Conner in Leading at the Edge of Chaos, our communications involve both content and context. In reframing, the content of the situation remains unchanged while you seek to alter the context of the situation by shifting the person’s focus on different available data or alternate interpretations. Conner suggests focusing on components of the frame of reference such as definitions, how history is perceived, purpose, and requirements. Tee up several scenarios and practice this with a colleague. The more skilled you become in reframing using the ladder of inference, the more efficient and effective your execution becomes, especially in the face of resistance.

Read More About It

For a great look at exactly what to do and say in the area of inquiry and advocacy, please track down the article "Can We Talk?" by Charlotte Roberts, published in the July/August 1998 issue of the Journal for Quality and Participation. Roberts is co-author of the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, and her 1998 article provides an excellent overview and suggested protocols for advocacy and inquiry. A short version of the article (without the protocols) can currently be found here. In addition, many libraries have free online access to the Business Source Premier research database from EBSCOhost through which you can access this article in seconds — just search for "ladder of inference." This will provide a longer version of the article including the protocols.