Mindset and Personal Change: Climb the Ladder of Inference

Personal change begins with your mindset. As an executive coach, I’ve seen time after time that awareness and appreciation of your mindset — how you “see” things; how your beliefs and assumptions color your thoughts and actions — is essential to engage in any kind of meaningful change. Recently, I worked with a client to develop their awareness using a concept called the “Ladder of Inference.” Let’s climb the Ladder of Inference and see what we can learn.

What is the Ladder of Inference?

The Ladder of Inference is a decision-making model that demonstrates how people move from an observable fact to the decisions they make. The model says that people move up a “ladder” from observed information and experiences to self-selected information, assumptions and beliefs about that information, and conclusions and actions based on those assumptions and beliefs.

We climb these ladders every day. We use them when we react to criticism about a business report we authored and when we learn that we’ve been passed over for a promotion, to what we do when the person in front of us is slow to get moving after a traffic light turns green.

The model was originally created by Chris Argyris and Donald Schoen, and made popular in the book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge.

The book was written in 1994, so it’s not the newest bright and shiny thing. However, the Ladder of Inference has proven to be a remarkably reliable and effective way to understand how your mindset may be effecting the way you are looking at a situation, and to help you drive meaningful personal and professional change.

Jenn’s Ladder of Inference — A High Performing Team Player

Jenn (not her real name of course) is what you might call a high-potential employee. Her work performance has been very strong, and she possesses all the basic attributes that could make her a terrific future leader at her company. Jenn sometimes lacks self-confidence but senses her potential. Her bosses believe in her and have plans.

Recently the company launched an important project and Jenn was not included among the team members. She was surprised and disappointed, and ultimately concerned. She figured there was a major problem afoot, and when I met her three weeks later, she told me confidentially that she was fine-tuning her resume and preparing for a job search. We unpacked Jenn’s thinking using the Ladder of Inference. Here’s what we discovered:

  1. The First Step of the Ladder

(Observable, objective fact)

Jenn was not selected to be on the new project team

  1. The Second Step of the Ladder

(We filter and use facts that we want, based on what we believe)

Jenn says, “This has never happened to me before!”

  1. The Third Step of the Ladder

(We add meaning based on personal and cultural points of view)

“Not getting picked to be on the team and work on the project is really bad. It’s a sign — it shows that there is a lack of confidence in my ability.”

  1. The Fourth Step of the Ladder

(We then make assumptions based on that meaning)

“My leadership team must think I’m not up to it. My boss must think I’m doing a poor job.” Jenn thinks.

  1. The Fifth Step of the Ladder

(We then begin to draw conclusions)

“If I ever want to advance here I better take on more projects and work longer hours.”

  1. The Sixth Step of the Ladder

(Now, based on that, we update our beliefs about the world)

“But I’m going to burn out,” thinks Jenn. “This company doesn’t care about me and is demanding too much from me.”

  1. The Last Step on the Ladder

(We take action based on the the updated beliefs)

“I’m updating my resume and starting a job search.”

What if the Ladder of Inference Were Changed?

Jenn quickly recognized that not getting selected to serve on the team for the new project was the only true, objective “fact” that she had. Everything else leading up to her action of updating her resume and beginning a job search was based on assumptions she was making and beliefs she held. Of course, she might be right, but Jenn’s mindset led her to a series of assumptions and beliefs that were not necessarily so.

I posed a series of questions to help Jenn envision the possibility of other Ladders of Inference.

  1. What are the true facts? Let’s view them the way a reporter might see and describe them.
  2. What other meanings are possible? What are some other interpretations? How might someone else interpret that completely differently?
  3. What assumptions are you making?
  4. If another interpretation was true, what would you do differently?
  5. What are some other alternatives?
  6. Think some more about alternatives. What else might you do?
  7. What can you do now?
  8. How will you practice your new interpretation?
  9. What support do you need to move forward?

As a result, Jenn began to view her situation in very different ways. For example, what if her senior team loved her work and simply felt that she had enough on her plate at the moment?

Considering “What can you do now?” Jenn decided to approach her boss and ask her about the project. As it turned out, the senior team was planning to launch another new project shortly — a project that was even more critical to the company than the project Jenn had not been assigned to. They thought Jenn would be a significant contributor and a great addition to that team and were, in essence, “saving” her.

Arden Coaching Can Help

What’s happening in your professional or personal world that would benefit from a hard look at your Ladder of Inference? Identify an issue that is challenging or worrying you, and work through the facts and your assumptions, beliefs, and interpretations. See where it leads and consider what steps you might take to arrive at a better last step on the Ladder of Inference.To learn more about understanding and adapting your mindset, effectively using the Ladder of Inference, and strengthening your leadership skills, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.