Shoulding Where You Shouldn’t

It’s a tricky proposition for leaders . . . determining the line between opinions, assumptions, shoulds and decisions. Most leaders receive vasts amount of data every day, and we often have to move quickly from information to decision. The path we take — consciously or unconsciously — has a lot to do with whether we are shoulding where we shouldn’t.

The ladder of inference, developed by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and popularized by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, highlights how we filter information, and assign meaning to that information based on our experience. For example, after receiving the initial information we determine whether something is relevant or important to the given situation. That is your opinion. Nothing wrong with that. We all do it.

The next step is the tricky part. Do you seek out additional information or different perspectives to challenge your opinion, or do you automatically make assumptions about what you think should happen based on those (possibly faulty) opinions? Making decisions based on filtered data, mixed with our beliefs and past experiences, is like short-hand for the brain. The only problem is, jumping from point A to point E leaves a lot of room for error.

Breaking free from the ladder of inference doesn’t necessarily have to take a lot of time, it simply requires you to consciously consider where you are making leaps from facts to shoulds. For example, perhaps you have a strong belief that being late is rude and unprofessional. A colleague shows up 15 minutes late for an important meeting with no explanation (those are the facts). Do you automatically jump to “this person is rude and unprofessional and therefore I cannot trust him or her to manage this important project” (sliding straight up the ladder from the facts to a should, or in this case a shouldn’t), or do you first pause to explore why the person was late. Perhaps there was a terrible accident on the way to work, or a critical phone call related to the project came in just as the meeting was scheduled to start. Would this information change your opinion on what you should do?

It is amazing how many times even a small amount of additional information can disrupt your mental shorthand and lead to better decisions.

Amid the pressure to move quickly from data to decision, do you have the discipline to stop and consider whether your assumptions are accurate, or if someone else might have a different — and equally important — perspective? A few extra moments may be all it takes to make sure you aren’t shoulding where you shouldn’t.

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