Staying honest with the Ladder of Inference

Honest conversations are important in a smoothly-functioning workplace. Whether it’s feedback, a team meeting, a project planning session, etc. open, transparent and honest communication works.

But how ‘honest’ can we be? The reality is that sometimes what we say does not reflect the facts or the truth of the situation; not because we are fibbing or deliberately trying to mislead, but because the way our brains work means we don’t always arrive at an accurate conclusion… or, at the least, our conclusion differs from those of others.

What’s going on? The Ladder of Inference offers some insight…


What is the Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference is a psychological model that lays out the mental steps we go through from being presented with information to taking action – during those steps, our perspective on the information and our thinking process are influenced by the way we see the world and our previously-held assumptions; potentially leading to inappropriate action.

As a model, the Ladder was first devised by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and was presented in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter Senge.


Climbing the Ladder – rung by rung

  1. Reality and Facts – This is what’s in front of us; data, information, what somebody else has said of done; this is the input from the outside world. However, what we do with that information can often depend as much (or more) on what is not in front of us as what is…
  2. Selected Reality – Put simply, our response to the situation is guided by our existing beliefs and prior experiences; as formed by upbringing, family, society, culture, TV, newspapers, school, and so on. We focus more on some facts than others (good or bad) because they seem familiar. This is where our unconscious biases come in.
  3. Interpreted Reality – We now have a personalised perception of the situation, and we proceed to interpret it; almost inevitably, that interpretation is adjacent to reality because it is based on a selective vision.
  4. Assumptions – We then apply whatever personal assumptions we have that might be relevant to the situation: e.g. team member X is unreliable, or Head Office never give the full picture, etc.
  5. Conclusions – Our conclusions are now based on filtered information and are more likely to be incorrect or incomplete.
  6. Beliefs – What we choose to believe about a situation (or a person) is based on the conclusions we have drawn, which are based on our past experiences, beliefs and assumptions.
  7. Actions – What we decide to do or say in response to information or a situation is not necessarily appropriate, depending on our beliefs and assumptions and how much our thinking is influenced by them.

Effectively, the ladder can be used to lift the lid on the unconscious decision-making process. By using it to check yourself, you can become aware of how you’re processing (and let’s be fair, possibly warping) the information you’re presented with.

Before you act, ask yourself questions such as these:

  • What other actions have I considered?
  • What is this action based on (an experience, a pre-existing belief or assumption…) and is it well-founded or not?
  • What conclusions did I draw; and were they sound?
  • Which facts or information did I not factor in to my thinking?

The Ladder of Inference is potentially a key to honest and clear communication at work; certainly, its use promotes self-honesty and taking a moment to reflect before taking action.


If you want to know more about how to use the Ladder of Inference model in the workplace, check out our free Honest Conversations webinar on 2 October; or call us on 01582 463460 – we’re here to help.

Recomended Posts