The Ladder of Inference.

July 22nd, 2011

Whatever your position on the organizational or corporate ladder, your success may very well depend on your use of the “ladder of inference.”

Chris Argyris, American business theorist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, designed the ladder of inference as a tool of “action science,” a field of inquiry he developed with MIT professor Donald Schon, which explored the reasoning and attitudes underlying human action for the purpose of  producing more effective learning in organizations.

I learned of their work decades ago, while reading about the discipline of managing “mental models” in Peter M. Senge’s seminal business book, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization” (1990, revised edition 2006) and his subsequent publication “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization” (1994). A discussion I had this week about beliefs and their capacity to shape our experience, prompted me to open those books yesterday. Here’s what I think is important enough to share with you.

Mental models – our beliefs, our assumptions, and our deeply held internal pictures of how the world works – affect what we see and shape how we act. They are generally unexamined and invisible to all of us, until we look for them. But they are always active and therefore often limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. According to Senge, “Two people with different mental models can observe the same event and describe it differently, because they’ve looked at different details and made different interpretations.” Think of the difference in several observers’ reports of the same car accident.

We can, however, manage our mental models and improve our communications by developing two types of skills: reflection (slowing down our thinking processes to be come more aware of how we form our beliefs) and inquiry (holding conversations where we openly share views and develop knowledge about each others’ assumptions.)

As one of the “Fieldbook” co-authors, Rick Ross, explains: We live in a world of self-generating beliefs which remain largely untested. We adopt those beliefs because they are based on conclusions, which are inferred from what we observe, plus our past experience. Our ability to achieve the results we truly desire is eroded by our feelings that:

  • Our beliefs are the truth.
  • The truth is obvious.
  • Our beliefs are based on real data.
  • The data we select are the real data.

The ladder of inference then is one of the tools designed to build the skills of reflection and inquiry. It’s a brilliant metaphor for showing how quickly we can leap knee-jerk conclusions with little data and no intermediate thought process. It looks like this:


I’ll illustrates with one of Ross’ examples: I’m making a presentation before the executive team. Everyone seems engaged except Larry, who appears bored out of his mind. He turns away from me and puts his hand to his mouth. He doesn’t ask any questions, but when I’m almost done breaks in to suggest that a full report be requested. Everyone starts to put away their notes. I think it’s obvious Larry thinks I’m incompetent. I think Larry has never liked my ideas and that, clearly, he’s a power-hungry jerk working against me. By the time I’m back in my seat I’ve decided I’m not going to use anything in my report that Larry can use.

  • I started at the bottom of the ladder with observable data: Larry’s comment which is so self-evident that it would show up on a video recorder…
  • …I select some detail about Larry’s behavior: his glance away from me and apparent yawn. (I didn’t notice him listening intently one moment before)…
  • …I added some meanings of my own, based on the culture around me (that Larry wanted me to finish up)…
  • …I moved rapidly up to assumptions about Larry’s current state (he’s bored)…
  • …and I concluded that Larry, in general, thinks I’m incompetent. In fact, I now believe that Larry (and probably everyone whom I associate with Larry) is dangerously opposed to me…
  • …thus, as I reach the top of the ladder, I don’t trust Larry and am plotting against him.

As for the “reflexive loop,” the more I believe Larry is against me, the more I will find evidence in his future behavior to reinforce that belief.

While it’s our nature to draw conclusions, we can improve our  communications by using the ladder of inference in three ways:

  • Becoming more aware of our own thinking and reasoning (reflection);
  • Making our thinking and reasoning more visible to others (advocacy);
  • Inquiring into others’ thinking and reasoning (inquiry.)

So if Larry and I understand the concepts behind the ladder of inference, we can have a safe, non-threatening conversation to share our thinking processes and ask questions about each others’ reasoning. I can ask him directly what his reaction is to the presentation. I can test my assumption that he’s bored, or I can just test the observable data that he was quiet. To which he might have replied, “Yeah, I’m taking notes; I love this stuff.”

I assure you, we do have the ability to create an attitude we do not have currently. Our point of power is always right now, in the present moment. And the tools exist to help us re-shape our beliefs, have more enjoyably collaborative work experiences and move our organizations forward.


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6 Responses to “The Ladder of Inference.”

  1. Carl Mueller says:

    I think this provides a platform for understanding that can be applied to almost any human relationship. I’m trying to remember a short story I read about a person sitting next to a fat man on an airplane and becoming very annoyed with him because of his size and apparent habits. Walking off the plane, the fat man jostled past him to a pay phone and the person watched with a feeling of anger and disgust, only to see the fat man quickly get into an animated conversation before starting to cry in a state of obvious grief. How we judge others and their words and actions is often even more distorted by the internet communications.

  2. Julie Tarney says:

    Thanks for your comment, Carl, and the story that illustrates a mental model in action of how easily we can jump to conclusions about people and situations. With a little training and practice, we do have the ability to become more aware just as easily of the reasoning that underlies our own interpretations and actions, professionally and personally.

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