Tag Archives: making assumptions

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

Lack of Communication You Say?

upon a time, I worked with banking executives.  They were all very good, smart people with a wide range of talents, skills and personalities.  However, when faced with a problem that involved people this sentence always seemed to come up.

“It’s a lack of communication”

It was kind of a throwaway remark that, once said, was somehow lost among the myriad of other important issues that required attention.  And yet, quite often, the root of a problem in the organization could be found under the heading of Communication,

Actually, the phrase, lack of communication is a bit faulty because it suggests that communication in organizations doesn’t exist. It does exist.  It just has a nasty habit of being dysfunctional

So what, in the simplest terms is effective communication?  Well, to me,   communication is good when you tell me something, and I understand it in the way you meant it.

It doesn’t sound complicated but we all know that, in reality, it is easier to say than to do.

So what gets in the way?

Well, a lot of things really, but here are three that come to mind for me.

  • Hearing but not listening

Listening is an art that requires time and concentration.  Generally, human beings aren’t that good at it and that’s why so many of our messages get lost along the way.

Listening requires suspending our own egos, opinions and thoughts to make room for someone else’s.  For example if I am nodding and looking at you while you are speaking but thinking about what I’m going to say next, I’m not really listening.  And, if you are doing the same thing, the words serve only to take us both further away from the real message. In essence, it becomes a game of verbal badminton rather than a meaningful exchange of information.

Good listening involves asking questions for clarification and repeating what we hear so that the message we get matches the message being delivered. And, it requires us to give some time over to learning about the perspectives and views of others if we are actually going to get something of value out of it.

  • Ass-U-Me

Oscar Wilde said “Assume and you make an Ass out of U and Me”. There is an element of truth in this.  At the very least, making assumptions about others when you have an important message to convey can certainly get in the way of their getting the meaning you intend.

For instance if you assume people know things, or have experience with things, they do not, and the clarity of your message relies on such knowledge or experience, chances are, they won’t understand what you’re getting at.

When we are busy this can easily happen but taking the time to ask some fundamental questions that will establish where people are, in relation to the message you want to send, will save time in the long run and be less frustrating for all concerned.

  • The Dreaded “Business Speak”

This has got to be one of the biggest reasons that understanding is lost between people in organizations.  For some reason, when we enter the front door of business life, our ability to speak plainly walks out the back door.

Speaking and writing plainly does not suggest lack of intelligence or knowledge on the part of the communicator, quite the opposite.  Someone who is able to get a clear message across with minimal head scratching on the part of the recipient is very clever indeed.

So the next time you are tempted to say something like,

“Going forward, we will dialogue about the deliverables, ensure that we have buy-in from all stakeholders and then circle back to close the loop on the project”,

you might want to reconsider and say something like,

From now on, let’s talk more about what we have to produce; make sure all those affected by what we are doing, agree; and then meet again to talk about how we might finish the project.

Just for fun, here’s a link to MBA Jargon Watch 2.0 – Where business jargon goes to die.

Something to think about:

How well does your organization communicate to its employees?  its clients?

What is working?  What needs to be fixed?  How would you do it differently?


Filed under Building Relationships, communication, motivating & Inspiring