Climbing the Ladder of Inference

The other day, while at the supermarket, I was reminded of how easy it is to make assumptions about people.  It happened while I was going through the checkout counter.  Behind me, were a mother and her little boy, who looked to be about three years old.  Together, they had two carry baskets brimming with grocery items.

Realizing she had forgotten something, Mom left the queue to go and get it, suggesting to her son that he begin to put the items they had already collected on the counter.  He was very small.  In fact so small his ability to comply with this suggestion was in some doubt, at least in my mind.  But, soon he was grabbing each item and chucking it as high as he could over his head so that it landed, rather unceremoniously, on the counter above him.  He was doing fine until he came to a can of soup.  After heaving this in the direction of the other items, it landed on its side. Being fearful that it might roll off the counter and hit him on the head, I took the can up and set it aright, thinking I was doing him a service.

The little boy gave me a filthy look.  He looked at the can.  Then he looked at me and scowled.  And, when his mother returned from her quest, he said, “Something’s not right

Mom, not really understanding what her son was on about, asked him what was not right, at which point, I said,

“I think he’s referring to me”.  I righted the can of soup so it wouldn’t roll off the counter.  I was trying to help”

To this, the little boy raised himself up to his full height of maybe three feet and loudly proclaimed, “I didn’t want any help!”

While a little stunned by the vehemence of his words, I quickly apologized to him, received some words of thanks from Mom and then decided it might be best if I minded my own business.

Thinking about this story, The Ladder of Inference comes to mind.  It was developed by Chris Argyris and made known in Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. It works something like this:

At the bottom of the ladder is information that is clear and observable.  In this case, I saw a little boy helping his mother with the grocery shopping.  I saw too, that there were a lot of groceries and that the little boy was really small.

I climbed to the second rung from the bottom where I narrowed my focus and selected only the data that interested me.  In this case, I concentrated on two things, the little boy and his attempts to hurl grocery items onto the counter above him.

I climbed to the third rung of the ladder and began to make assumptions. First, I assumed that because he was small, he was not really capable of fulfilling his assigned task.  And then, I assumed he needed help.

I climbed to the fourth rung of the ladder and concluded, based on these assumptions, that he would be glad of my help.  From there, I proceeded to the fifth rung where I connected this conclusion to my belief that helping each other is an important and natural part of the human experience.

When I got all the way to the top of the ladder and acted in accordance with my assumptions and beliefs, I was met with hostility rather than the appreciation, or at least neutrality, I was expecting.

The point is that it is easy for us to run up the ladder and get things wrong even when we have the best of intentions.  Had I simply asked the little boy if he would like help in unloading his groceries (or in his case UPloading his groceries), I would have had the answer I needed, respected his wishes and stayed out of trouble.  But I didn’t.  So I didn’t.

All of which brings me to this…Good leadership can falter quite easily too, if we fail to check out and validate assumptions before we act. For instance, before every meeting you hold do you assume that everyone knows why you are meeting?  Do you assume that everyone will have everything they need to fully participate in the meeting?

What other assumptions might you be making when you interact with those who follow your lead?  How accurate are they?  What steps might you take to prevent a trip up the Ladder of Inference?  What questions might you ask?

Have you other thoughts you can share?

In the meantime and on the lighter side, this is what Oscar Wilde thought about assumptions, courtesy of Benny Hill.


Filed under building awareness, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Learning, Uncategorized

28 responses to “Climbing the Ladder of Inference

  1. Gwyn, as are most of your posts, this is excellent. So much turmoil can be avoided by asking ourselves, “What assumptions am I making?”. Its not a bad question to ask in meetings, or when we’re headed for a final decision on something. Unfortunately, its not foolproof because we can deceive ourselves, but its at least on the right track. Thanks for the great post.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Mary Jo, checking our assumptions seems like such an easy thing to do. It makes one wonder why we don’t do it more often. I think your point about deceiving ourselves gives us a clue about that. I would hazard to say that most of us can travel up the Ladder of Inference at a pace so dizzying that we should be taking medicine for vertigo. Perhaps just knowing that we do that will give us cause to slow down and think before we speak or act.
      Thanks for adding your usual wise voice here.

  2. Something like your story happened in my household this morning. My children were playing together, when suddenly I heard my daughter exclaim, “You don’t have to be mean to me, I was just trying to help!” Investigating, I found that she had been directing her brother while he was playing a video game. I explained to her that sometimes people don’t like to be helped.

    I’ve encountered this kind of “help” in the workplace, in the form of micromanagement; so I think I understand quite well what my son was feeling, trying to play a game with someone giving directions over his shoulder (however well-intentioned)!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Leslie, Your comment reminds me of what the road to You-Know-Where is paved with. Making inaccurate assumptions can land us in a heap of trouble, no matter how well intentioned we may be.
      To me, micro-management may be based on the assumption that competence is lacking but also stems from a need for unreasonable control, a dysfunctional behaviour perhaps worthy of its own blog post!
      Thanks for making me think more about this!

  3. Hi Gwen,
    Such a smart post! A great reminder of the value of the Ladder of Inference for one, and of the automatic tendency to run up the ladder!
    Assumptions and the expectations that form out of them are really tremendous obstacles in conscious communication. And of course, beliefs – the glue that holds it all together.
    thanks again for such a well done and informative post!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Louise, thank you…and thank you for adding your perspective here too. It’s always a welcome addition to the post 🙂

  4. I would like to say here in my own defence that the micromanagement had nothing to do with any incompetence on my part, or the part of my co-workers, and everything to do with an insecure person attempting to assert control in unnecessary and counterproductive ways. 🙂

    And yes, I think the issue of control would be a great subject for a blog post.

  5. Gwyn Teatro

    Leslie, the thought never crossed my mind! If it had, I would have been thinking it from the top of my Ladder…a very precarious place. 🙂

  6. I love Arygis’s Ladder of Inference. I’ve always thought it was a great way to show how quickly we go up in levels of thought until we reach and act out on an assumption. YOur example was a great way to display what happens although I still think I would have turned the can upright even if he didn’t want my help. NOt saying my response is right but I’d be hard-pressed not to act on my concerns vs. his. Oops, just revealed something about me. 🙂

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Cherry, I must admit that if I had taken the time to exam my assumptions, the soup can could very well have hit the little boy on the noggin and then I would have felt bad about *that*…so in this case, for me and likely for you too, running up the ladder seemed to be the lesser of two evils.

  7. Interesting way you used that situation to make your point. It can be difficult to not step in when you can easily make the changes needed with little effort & hard to stand back & watch as someone else struggles with it. But in the end- sometimes it is the learning process that comes with that struggle that is the real teachable moment. Some only learn from making their own mistakes & many won’t learn anything at all when someone else is doing it for them.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Gina, You’re quite right of course, some of us do only learn from making our own mistakes and I expect that that level of independence brings with it more pain than a rolling can of soup might deliver. I like to think that most of us learn, over time, that asking for, or accepting help has its place. We never really know though what is needed or wanted unless we stop and ask.

  8. This is perfect! Thanks for sharing the Ladder of Inference, Gwyn. Now I’m gaining some understanding about a couple of events that happened to me last week, concerning assumptions that I should have challenged.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Joe, I’m so glad my timing in delivering this post was good enough to be useful to you. Thank you…It’s always nice to *see* you here 🙂

  9. Hi Gwyn,

    I want to echo everyone’s comments about what a brilliant job you’ve done using this personal story to illustrate how our assumptions/beliefs lead us astray from what’s needed or required in a given moment.

    One assumption that often gets leaders and their employees into such messes is that to be a leader means you have all the answers. Think of all the times we’ve seen subordinates running into the office of their superiors with some problem, with the expectation that the superior will conceive of the answer that will resolve the issue.

    The true mark of leadership is not thinking you have all the answers, but instead understanding it’s your employees who have the answers and your job is to empower them to put those answers into action. In the case of the little boy, he probably had the answer to how to correct for the tipped over can – perhaps he’d toss another item in front of it or simply shift to one side to steer clear of it.

    The point is that leaders need to become comfortable with asking their employees what they need instead of presuming that their role is simply to help their employees fix problems that might come up during their watch.

    Thanks again for the inspiring post, Gwyn.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Tanveer, I agree, it is easy to put a lot of pressure on the leader (and for the leader to accept it), by assuming that the role of the leader is to know, and be able to figure out, everything. You are quite right that had I left the can of soup and the little boy to their own fate, the boy would probably have figured out how to avoid a painful consequence. And, if he hadn’t, he would certainly have known what to do, or not to do, the next time.
      Thanks for your rich and thoughtful comment.

  10. Hi Gwyn, I love this. Oh dear how often I run up that ladder! Your Benny Hill clip has done me so much good. Now I have something fixed forever in my mind, hopefully to make me take a step back before reaching too high!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Wendy, It appears that “running up the ladder” often is a pastime in which we are both in good company. In fact, if it were an actual physical process, I would be a lot thinner right now. 🙂
      I’m glad there was something of value in the post for you. I love it when that happens.
      Thanks for coming by!

  11. Pingback: Assumptions « Leading Space

  12. Pingback: Climbing the Ladder of Inference | digitalNow |

  13. This is an effective way to illustrate Argyris’ Ladder by bringing it into the everyday world. BTW – your video is noted as “private” and not accessible.

  14. Kandy Giles

    Hello! We are with our groups again!

  15. Constance Rich

    Great article!

  16. Kandy Giles

    I do often meet a student who gives me that look like “hey, I did not ask for your advice!” How do we know when we are approaching a student who does not want our help. I realize I need a non-verbal signal in my classroom for students who need to to NOT add my two cents.”

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Kandy ~ Perhaps sometimes it’s just a matter of asking… which is something I failed to do 🙂 Thanks for coming by!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s