Business communication at middle market companies is often undermined by subjective bias: two reasonable people can be in exactly the same situation, seeing and hearing the same things, yet have completely different interpretations of what’s going on. Neither person is right or wrong.

All people interpret the “facts,” whether they’re statements or observable events, through their own mental frames made up of past experiences, personal values, untested assumptions, and more. When there are too many unstated assumptions, communication fails—and so do new initiatives, strategic projects, and more.


The ladder of inference is a communications model described by Harvard Business School Professor Chris Argyris and others: it’s defined as the thinking process people go through, usually without even realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be likened to rungs on a ladder, with reality and facts on the bottom, assumptions about what the reality and facts “mean” in the middle, and actions based on those (possibly erroneous) assumptions on the top rung. Before we describe how to leverage this understanding to help communication in your middle market company, let’s first explore how the ladder of inference can hinder good communication.


How The Ladder of Inference Can Reduce Collaboration

The ladder of inference is built upon a profound human truth: i.e., that what we assume to be true (our beliefs) shapes what we say and do. Yet our assumptions and emotions can lead us astray. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman famously described in his book “Emotional Intelligence,” our emotions can take over and hijack our self-awareness. Awash in emotions based on untested assumptions, we can lose our mental equilibrium and fail to challenge our assumptions when we should. We believe we’re right and others are wrong. Meanwhile, others are doing the same. That’s a perfect formula for interpersonal/team conflict.


A Case Study: The Ladder of Inference in Action

Let’s look at a hypothetical example of how the ladder of inference might operate to disrupt a collaborative environment at a middle market company. Sally and Bill have begun working on an IT project team. The team leader, at the first meeting, asks everyone for ideas, so Sally raises her hand and suggests bringing in a consultant because the team lacks expertise in cybersecurity, a key aspect of the project. Without raising his hand, Bill says loudly “we have to consider the costs here. Consultants can be expensive and can waste limited project resources.” 


Let’s explore what might be happening inside the minds of both Sally and Bill. Sally wants to make a good first impression. She’s recognized a real gap in the team’s expertise, and wants to close that gap by bringing in external know-how. When Bill interrupts, Sally’s first thought is that he hasn’t raised his hand. She sees Bill’s interruption as an effort to kill her idea before it’s been fully explained or considered. She begins to think of Bill as a naysayer, someone who shoots down people’s ideas while offering no alternatives. The more Sally thinks about it, the more upset she gets: “who the heck does Bill think he is rudely interrupting me and shooting down my idea?” Sally now intends to call Bill out in front of the whole group for his rudeness and negativity.


As for Bill, he’s had bad experiences with IT consultants before. On his last project (Sally wasn’t on that team), a high-priced cybersecurity consultant came in, added very little value, and took the project way over budget. Bill doesn’t want his new team repeating that mistake. Moreover, nobody has defined any team ground rules about raising hands in order to speak up. Bill is an engineer who calls himself a straight-shooter, a quality all effective teams need. Besides, Bill isn’t saying anything against Sally personally -- he just thinks her idea needs a more careful cost-benefit analysis, especially considering what happened on the last project.


Solutions: Investigate Assumptions Before Climbing the Ladder

To work effectively with others, each person must understand and challenge their own assumptions. The Ladder of Inference Model can help us become more self-aware and collaborative by putting our own assumptions up for scrutiny before we allow them to inform/shape our beliefs and decisions about others. 


What if Sally, before assuming that Bill was rudely interrupting her, realized that team norms regarding how to communicate had yet to be defined? Maybe hand raising should become the team norm, but maybe not. Again, neither Sally nor Bill was right or wrong here, so no bad faith should be assumed by either party.


What if Bill had simply explained that he’d had a prior bad experience with IT consultants and didn’t want to see his new team repeat that error? What if Sally had proactively addressed the cost issue by asking whether the project budget could accommodate her idea? What if both Sally and Bill agreed that the team lacked the in-house cybersecurity expertise it needed, so looking outside would be necessary?


As Sally and Bill moved up the ladder of inference, each had ample opportunities to “investigate” their own assumptions, asking questions to confirm (or adjust) their “working hypotheses.” Simply being aware of the risks inherent in the ladder of inference can be a huge advantage in collaborative endeavors. It takes real humility to admit that “maybe my assumptions are wrong and maybe I should investigate them before jumping to conclusions.” By questioning their own assumptions, Sally and Bill could have initiated a constructive, problem-solving discussion instead of escalating interpersonal conflict.


The Key Question: “Could I Be Wrong Here?”

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." The beginner’s mind is open because it’s holding onto fewer assumptions, and is more likely to learn from lived experiences. 


Being aware of the ladder of inference, and how it impacts your thoughts and actions, can make you far more intentional, enabling you to stop yourself before climbing the ladder of inference. Instead, you can go back and interrogate the data (what someone said or did), without jumping to potentially-erroneous conclusions. Assuming that you might be wrong, that there may be alternate explanations, may be the most useful assumption of all. 


7 Tips to Keep You from Climbing the Ladder of Inference:


  1. View your conclusions as conclusions based on inferences, not as self-evident “facts.”
  2. Assume your reasoning could have gaps/errors that you simply don’t see.
  3. Paraphrase out loud the meanings you hear in what others are saying, so you can check if you’re accurately understanding them. 
  4. Explain the steps in your thinking that take you from the data you select and the meanings you paraphrase to the conclusions you reach. Vocalize (out loud, in front of others) your journey up the ladder.
  5. Ask others if they have other ways of interpreting the data, or if they see gaps in your thinking/assumptions.
  6. Assume that others may reach different conclusions from you (because they will) because they have their own ladders of inference.
  7. Ask others to explain the steps in their thinking.


Following these tips takes humility, but can lead to far better collaborative outcomes based on reality, mutual respect, and an avoidance of assumptions that can escalate team conflict. They can help you and your team work with more clarity and collaboration.