Maybe it’s a holdover from my Marine training, but if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s when people are chronically late.
If I had an employee who was late to work all the time, it would get under my skin in a big way. My assumption would be chronically tardy employees don’t like their work. And everyone knows that if someone doesn’t like their work, they’re not likely to be very good at it, right?
The Ladder of Inference
Disciplined leaders need to fight the urge to jump to conclusions as I did in the scenario above. Instead, we should train ourselves to be curious and discover the real reasons behind the behaviors we observe. It’s especially important when it comes to dealing with relationships with employees.
That’s easier said than done, because it’s human nature to make assumptions about the things we observe. It’s how our brains process the endless stream of data that constantly bombards us. Organizational psychologist Chris Argyris explained this human nature with his “Ladder of Inference” model.
The basic premise of the Ladder of Inference contends that we move up a ladder when taking in information and making decisions based on that information. We start with data that can be seen and observed, then we select the facts we want to focus on, interpret those facts, make assumptions, draw conclusions, forge beliefs, and take action.
The only “pure” part of that process is the data that existed in the beginning – everything from our selection of which data to focus on all the way through our chosen course of action is skewed and subjective. To make matters worse, there is also a “reflexive loop” component to the Ladder of Inference – our new beliefs will influence what data we pay attention to next time.
So, the opinions I formed about the tardy employee (she doesn’t like her job and isn’t good at it) will cause me to focus on evidence that supports that hypothesis, and ignore evidence to the contrary. As a result, I may miss the fact that she does great work (once she arrives), or that she stays late many nights.
Slow Your Climb
The Ladder of Inference is interesting psychology, but what can we do about it?
One of the best things leaders can do is simply to be aware that it exists and that nearly every decision they make is affected by this process. To a certain degree, you can’t help it. You’re hum
an and this is how the human brain works.
Acknowledging that fact is half the battle.
Once you do, you can then start to try to slow your progression up the ladder, especially when you’re faced with a critical decision. When you recognize you’re being faced with a critical decision, refer back to the Ladder of Inference model.
Take stock of the data you’ve collected and how you’re interpreting it. Ask yourself if there are key facts you might be overlooking or dismissing. Go through the ladder slowly and think about the different paths you might take if the information changes.
You might still arrive at the same conclusion. The chronically late employee I used in the example might just be an all-around bad match for the job.
But it’s just as likely there are other reasons for her lateness, and I would risk alienating - or terminating - a good employee if I didn’t know for sure.
Scott Brown is a culture consultant and executive coach, and is owner of Stone House Management Consulting. He writes about workplace culture and effective leadership.