What’s This “Ladder of Inference” All About?

Climbing the ladder of inference is one of my favorite expressions. I am not talking about climbing the corporate ladder. I am referring to making quick, unfounded assessments about something without checking.

Chris Argyris, organizational psychologist, describes the “ladder of inference” as a model that demonstrates how we make sequential (and sometimes untested), subjective interpretations or inferences from a set of observations, and then commit to act based on those inferences.

Just as you should never put up an 8 ft. ladder without checking to see if what you are leaning it against is strong, stable, and the footing is sound, you should not climb the ladder of inference without checking your assessments.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

• I was waiting to pull into a parking spot at my children’s school recently, when a woman darted into it before me. I was furious; she could see I was waiting. When I went into the school office, I learned that her daughter had fallen off of the monkey bars and needed to be taken to the hospital. That would explain her rush!

• I was talking with someone recently who was frustrated over a lack of work review by a coworker. When I asked more about the situation, it turned out that he was making an assumption about someone else’s time. He had drawn the conclusion that the coworker did not have time to review the work, in fact, he was not even aware it was ready for his review.

In both cases, taking the time to inquire could have stemmed the frustrations. At least for me, I got angry based on my own assumptions and conclusion. Instead, I could have taken a deep breath and considered another motive for her actions.

Making inferences from a conversation, events, or information is a critical skill. We draw conclusions instantly every day. There is both power and danger in that ability. There are times when we need to slow down and check our assumptions. Successful use of the ladder of inference allows us to develop greater awareness of our thought processes by revealing the steps in our reasoning. Put another way, when you assume you “make an ass out of you and me,” so stay off that ladder.


P.S. I will teach the “ladder of inference” and many other communication and leadership skills at the Larimer County Workforce Center’s workshop series for supervisors, Becoming a Highly Successful Manager – Essential Skills for Supervisors. The series starts this Friday, July 11th. Hurry, there is still space available! Go to http://larimerworkforce.org/workshop-index/ for more information and to register.


2 thoughts on “What’s This “Ladder of Inference” All About?

  1. Paulette,

    Great refresher on ladder of inference. Good luck on Friday!


    Sent from my iPhone


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