Stepping in a Heap
Edwin was already shaking his head when he popped onto my screen for our coaching call. “Oh, boy, I really stepped in it,” he said as an opener.
I knew Edwin had a sincere drive to do the right thing. When he felt himself off the mark, he suffered. Although he was smiling, I could see this was no small matter to him.
He told me what happened.
Edwin had created a document for his boss, Marta. He’d intended the document for her eyes only and assumed she’d treat it as such.
Ten days later, Marta sent an email to dozens of people, including Edwin, referencing a document she’d shared in a different setting. Edwin could tell she was referring to the not-for-distribution document he had created for her. The fact that she had shared it was not his biggest concern; he accepted he hadn’t been explicit with her about confidentiality. What disturbed him most was that the document was going to stir up a hornet’s nest of upset.
Wanting to protect Marta from blow-back, Edwin composed a heartfelt apology to the group, taking full responsibility for the document Marta had referenced, and sent it to the distribution list. Almost immediately he found out that he’d been wrong. The document Marta had referenced was not the one Edwin had created. The email he’d sent caused all sorts of confusion and upset.
There were so many people to apologize to he didn’t know where to start. He was mortified. He had, as he said, stepped in it.
I watched as he gathered himself.
He said, “I’ve been here before, you know.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
A History of Jumping
“I think back to being with friends in school. I’d be the one guy arguing that, no, we really should do it that way. Then I’d come to find out I’d missed the boat somewhere along the line and gone off down my own path.”
“How interesting,” I said. “What was happening?”
“You mean why was I doing it? I don’t know. But it happened more than once.”
“And does it matter? If you did this forever, would it make any difference?”
“I think so,” he said. “I don’t want to be the guy who’s stirring things up all the time, like I did with that email. But if I keep jumping to wrong-headed conclusions, I’m gonna be that guy. How could that be good for me?”
I replied, “I agree, it can be costly to jump to wrong conclusions. But I also believe we all jump to conclusions all the time and it can be super beneficial. Jumping to conclusions lets us be efficient. I see the light turn green and jump to the conclusion that everyone else sees it, too, and that we all agree on what it means, so I step on the gas – because I jumped to a conclusion. It’s not always bad.”
“But how do you know whether it’s a good conclusion or a bad conclusion? When all the signs say ‘go,’ how do you learn to slow down and make sure?”
The Ladder of Inference
Considering, I said, “I wonder if The Ladder of Inference would be helpful to you, Edwin. The Ladder of Inference might give you a way to see whether all those signs are really saying ‘go,’ or not. The Ladder has three rungs and each one gives you questions to ask yourself before moving up. You might like it.”
“Is this something you can send me?” he asked.
“Sure, I’ll send you a PDF,” I said. “But can I tell it to you? It’s not complicated.”
I said, “Okay. At the very top of The Ladder of Inference is an action. An action taken. Something I do, like stepping on the gas.”
“Or sending out that email,” he smiled.
“Alas, yes,” I smiled back. “You top out on the Ladder when you take an action. The rungs on The Ladder, which come before the action, help you confirm that the action you’re going to take is going be beneficial. It helps you be intentional.”
“No jumping to bone-headed conclusions,” he said.
“Right,” I smiled. “The Ladder helps lead you to an action that is perfect for the moment.” I gave a little shrug and said, “Your brain is going to climb these three rungs anyway. Being conscious of them helps make the action solid.”
“That’d be great. Lord knows it couldn’t hurt,” he said smiling.
Based in Data
I said, “So if the top of The Ladder is an action, what’s at the bottom? Well, the bottom of The Ladder is planted in the pool of all the data that is available to you. It is everything around you. And there’s way more data than you can possibly process. So you have to select data that’ll help your action be well-intended. That choice, that selection of data, is the first rung on The Ladder of Inference. Rung number one: select data.”
He said, “But isn’t selecting data like bias? Isn’t selecting some data and excluding others a bad thing?”
“No. The Ladder is saying that selecting data is inevitable. You have to select data, so how about examining the data before you take action, instead of afterwards?”
He frowned, thinking. “What was the data in my case? I guess it would be seeing her mention my document in her email, right?”
“Ah, wait. Seeing her mention a document was the data point. Deciding that the document was yours was the next rung up. But let’s stick with this first rung for a second. When you’re on this first rung, test the data you’ve selected. You ask yourself, ‘What do I really know? Is this data reliable? Is it accurate? Is there other data out there?’”
He said, “You know what other data was out there? The fact that she had already shared the document with people. If I’d bothered to check out what that document was, I would never have sent that email.” He pulled at his lip, thinking. “Okay, check my data. What’s the second rung?”
Interpreting the Data
I said, “Interpretation. We take the data we selected and interpret it. We make it mean something.”
“Right,” he said. “My interpretation was that she was talking about my document.”
“Exactly,” I agreed.
“So is the second rung always a distortion of the data?” he asked.
“Always? No. But it could be, which is why this rung can be helpful. Ask yourself, ‘Is this interpretation real? How do I know this? What other interpretations are there?’ You test your interpretation.”
“So this is when I would’ve asked myself, ‘Is she really referring to my document? Really?’”
“Exactly. Test your interpretation. If this second rung is sturdy, you move up to the last rung before the top: you make a conclusion. The conclusion justifies the action you’re about to take.”
“Justifies? Maybe, but by then it’s too late. By the time I make a conclusion I’m already screwed.”
“Screwed why? You haven’t taken the action yet.”
That stopped him. “Oh. I don’t think of my conclusions as separate from my actions. Once I make my conclusion, the action’s going to happen. But you’re saying I could separate them.”
I nodded. “Yes, that is the exact lesson The Ladder teaches.”
“So what was my conclusion? To send the email?”
“The way I heard it, you interpreted that the document Marta had shared was yours, which led you to conclude that people would be up in arms and that you could protect her by falling on your sword.”
He just looked at me and nodded. Then he made air quotes and said, “’Then what?’ My wife does ‘then what?’ with me sometimes. I’ll tell her some string of things that’s happened and she’ll just look at me and say, ‘Then what?’ Like ‘so what?’ Like, ‘If that happened, then what are you going?’”
“And does ‘then what’ change what happens next?” I asked.
“Sometimes, yes. It slows me down. It makes me think about my thinking.” He stopped and wrote something down. Then he asked, “So what’s the question I should ask myself on this ‘conclusion’ rung?”
“Same as the other rungs. Test your conclusion. Ask yourself, ‘Even if my interpretation’s correct, does that mean my conclusion is correct? What other conclusions might there be? What have I left out?’”
“So even if Marta had been referring to my document, would I need to do anything about it? Could I just let it be and see what happens?”
“That’s an interesting question, Edwin. Could you have just let it be?”
He gave it consideration. “If I really believed everyone had received that document? I suppose.”
“And what might have happened?” I asked.
“I would’ve had one really bad sleepless night.” He gave a snort. “But better that than this!”
The Ladder of Inference helped Edwin be more thoughtful in many parts of his life. When he used it, he felt himself reining in an energy that had been wild in him but now was guiding him toward The Look & Sound of Leadership.