Yeah, but I don’t do this… do I? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s look at an example to help you decide:
You are working on a complex and urgent project. You need help from Gwynne. In fact, you can’t really move forward if she doesn’t engage in your project, or at the very least provide you with the information you’ve requested.
You have sent Gwynne two emails, no response. Unable to get her by email, you leave her a voicemail, still no response. You start stalking her on IM. Unresponsive there, as well. You now start wondering what could be going on with Gwynne.
You recall there was that one project last year when you took up opposite sides of several issues and differed in your overall approach. You conclude that Gwynne must be avoiding you. As time goes on, you become more and more certain Gwynne never liked you and is deliberately working against you. Because of this, you decide the next time she needs something from you, you’re going to give it right back to her.
You happen to be in a meeting with Gwynne a few weeks after all of this began, and you are on high alert for examples of Gwynne trying to sabotage you. Things go downhill from there and eventually others in your organization notice the tension between the two of you.
Let’s look at how the ladder of inference is at work in this example:
First, you start with the observable, hard data (the bottom of the ladder). Remember, these are the facts as a video recorder would capture them: Gwynne did not answer two emails, a voicemail, and IMs when you wanted her to. Observation by itself is not a biased activity.
Second, you select data to pay attention to: Gwynne’s behavior right now and what happened between you on that project last year. Perhaps you ignore the other projects and interactions with Gwynne that went well. This is where you begin applying your filters to select the data you will pay attention to. These filters are based on what is important to you and arise by virtue of your past experiences.
Third, you add meanings and interpretations to the data you deemed important enough to pay attention to. Again, this is based on your own set of experiences and the expectations and assumptions they have created: Gwynne feels competitive with you; she doesn’t want you to succeed; she is sabotaging you.
Fourth, from there you start making more assumptions based on those meanings: Gwynne must be avoiding you; she is working against you; she never liked you.
Fifth, you make conclusions based on those meanings and assumptions and you adopt beliefs about the world: The next time Gwynne needs your help, you will be evasive and unresponsive. Gwynne is trying to sabotage you. You are convinced this is true because you see evidence of Gwynne’s sabotage everywhere you look.
Finally, at the top rung of the ladder of inference, you believe you have full knowledge of the situation and you take the necessary action: Your communications with Gwynne break down and the tension between the two of you is observable to others.
Has anything like this ever happened to you? (Notably, the reaction in this example is exaggerated to illustrate how the ladder works but consider whether any of it feels at all familiar.)
- The aftermath of this climb up the ladder of inference is that, going forward, each time you encounter Gwynne, you are on high alert. This means you enter into your encounters with Gwynne primed to look for evidence that supports your assumptions (that’s the feedback loop we talked about above).
The ladder of inference is a powerful filter. When driven up that ladder, you don’t get to take advantage of the whole picture. You miss other, contrary facts and perspectives; facts that would lead to a different conclusion about Gwynne. Meaning is applied to the data you observe that supports the assumptions you have already made. Each time you move up the ladder, you reinforce the loop and you become less able to see Gwynne for who she really is.
This entire sorting process occurs in milliseconds, hundreds of times each day. Scary!
In the next topic, we look at the physical mechanism that is often responsible for fueling the ladder in a way that convinces us of the truth of our fears: Amygdala hijack.
“The real achievement is found when we acknowledge that these unresolved forces, our demons, affect our lives and those who work with us tremendously, simply because everything we do is determined by the fears and hopes we bring to a situation. Recognizing the presence of these forces in our own outlook, we can stop them from playing out unconsciously with our colleagues in the workplace.”
— David Whyte