The Ladder of Inference is a mental model for communication – ours and others – and whether we are conscious of it or not, it impacts the way we interact every day. 

The concept of the Ladder of Inference was originally developed by Chris Argyris and is explored in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge. The basic premise is that we create our own “truth” by quickly assimilating data, evaluating the situation, and acting. Sometimes we do this based on mere assumptions that we don’t even realize we created as a part of the process. 

The ladder elements in their simplest form include the following:

  1. Make observations
  2. Select data that resonates
  3. Add meanings to this data
  4. Make assumptions based on these meanings
  5. Draw conclusions about what is happening
  6. Adopt beliefs about what is happening
  7. Take action based on these  beliefs

While there are many rungs on the ladder, it can take just seconds to climb them or make leaps in our mind.  In addition, it is a dynamic model, meaning the beliefs we form and actions we take can lead to us being selective about future data or observations.  Thus, it can create positive and negative self-fulfilling prophecies in very short periods of time. 

In the work environment, employees’ Ladders of Inference can promote or inhibit beliefs about what is really happening.  Consider this organizational example:

You have a manager meeting in which it is mentioned that a new flexible work program has been approved for one department in the organization and, if successful, will be rolled out to others. One or two questions are asked but given the limited time frame, it is noted that more information will be shared later. Now imagine the possible post-meeting discussions…

  • “Why didn’t they pilot it in our department? We’ve been asking for this for months. That team is clearly the favorite. They always get special treatment, and they always get everything first.”
  • “This is just not fair. Why didn’t they just roll the whole thing out all at once? It isn’t that hard to figure out something like this, but now that team is going to be able to provide input and none of the rest of us get any input. They don’t even do the same type of work we do, so the pilot isn’t even going to be relevant for anyone else.”
  • “Isn’t it exciting that they are finally open to a flexible work program? Maybe things will change around here after all! We are finally going to be able to work remotely whenever we want.”

This is just one example that demonstrates how people can take just a few data points or observations and very quickly make “leaps of abstraction”, they then report as their own “truth”.  Each has his or her point of view that was informed by some personal “leaps” on the Ladder of Inference.  The most effective way for an organization to combat these leaps of abstraction is to do as much as possible to “make your thinking and reasoning more visible”.  In other words, the antidote to these rapid assumptions is transparency. 

Transparency in this context means communicating frequently and thoroughly about culture, goals, principles, vision, and change in a positive manner. As an organization, you want to create an environment where the authentic, observable data (e.g., actions, behaviors, language, etc.) helps create inferences that are more in alignment with the vision you have for the company.  Without attentiveness to communication or transparency, any type of existing or emerging cultural concerns or divide can be widened unintentionally by employees making quick assumptions or judgments with little data. 

If you are in a role that contributes to organizational transparency, consider how the Ladder of Inference might be at play in your work environment. What can you do that would fill the void of information? How can you share data or observations that contribute to positive inferences as opposed to negative ones? And how can you make thinking and reasoning more visible? Your attention to communication around all of these issues can make a big difference in the actions and beliefs of your employees, and ultimately to the success of your organization.