Climbing the ladder of inference

"Jill" once worked at the "ABC" company on a major project that bumped the company up a notch in recognition. When the project ended, Jill hoped for some sort of acknowledgement, but no bonuses, thank you cards, or glowing words of praise came her way. ABC now found itself in a frenzied state of transition, and Jill expected to be asked to work on a project in the new campaign. She wasn't. She concluded that they did not appreciate her work, and she would be better off moving on, which she did.

Fast forward three years. Jill recently ran into the vice president of ABC at the grocery store. As part of the casual small talk, Jill mentioned that she was applying for a position at a renowned local company. The next day Jill received a copy of an e-mail sent by the VP of ABC, unsolicited, to the company where she had applied for the job. The e-mail described in detail all that Jill had done for ABC, how much the VP had enjoyed working with Jill, how talented she was, and how they would be foolish not to hire her. How on earth had Jill so misunderstood how much ABC actually valued her?

Jill ended up with this misperception by "climbing the ladder of inference." The concept of the ladder of inference was pioneered by business theorist Chris Argyris, and it describes the mental pathway our brains take that can lead us to misguided conclusions. The lowest rung of the ladder is a simple observation, but from there we can quickly climb to misguided beliefs. We start by unconsciously selecting which data to focus on based on our culture, our previous experiences, expectations, and a host of other individual factors. From this select data we climb another rung on the ladder by adding meaning to the data, also based on our personal background and experiences. From there we make assumptions, then draw conclusions which are at best incomplete, and at worst completely wrong. Finally, we take an action that makes perfect sense to us, but does not correspond to the other person's reality, which is based on their own climb up the ladder.

You can stop your leap up the ladder of inference by slowing down and challenging your assumptions, inferences, and conclusions. Ask yourself if you have all the data needed to understand the situation. Suspend your assumptions and do more observing by asking questions that explore the meaning of a behavior rather than assuming you already know the meaning.

Set aside preconceived notions about another person and stay on the lowest rung of the ladder, which is to observe and experience without attaching meaning.

Now, reread the story of Jill. Did you assume Jill was not assertive enough? Or perhaps that the VP had poor communication skills? What lead you to that conclusion? How high up the ladder did you go just reading this one paragraph? Well, come on back down and try again.

Karen Bolda, M.A., is a meeting facilitator and professional development trainer. She's lived in Ashland for 13 years where she operates her own consulting business. Visit her website at or contact her at

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