Candid feedback is great, but let’s climb down the ladder of inference first
Like giving a gift, there’s an art to giving the right one at the right time. Feedback is no different. In fact, leadership demands it.
We’ve all been there — being able to give someone positive feedback (“Wow, good job!”), yet struggling to string together words for constructive feedback. Yet feedback is a vital tool to progress and growth, especially where I work — at ThoughtWorks — where we aim to live and breathe feedback. It’s also a skill I’ve had to really buckle down to develop as a trainer at ThoughtWorks University, Thoughtworks’ global graduate training program.
At ThoughtWorks University, one of the main expectations of a trainer is to share feedback with the trainees continuously so that they can grow and develop. This is a common skill crucially needed in anyone in a leadership or management position. It’s hard to get it right — how you deliver criticism can make a big difference. It can be easily construed as mean-spirited rather than well-intentioned.
One particular thing I would like to highlight is the importance of the Ladder of Inference, proposed by Chris Argyris in 1970. The Ladder of Inference is a series of steps that we go through, to go from some observable data, to some decision or conclusion. Often, it ends in some form of action being executed, such as giving your trainee feedback. As illustrated here:
But the important thing here is that as humans, it is so easy to jump up this ladder and go directly from the data, skip all the steps and jump to a conclusion. This can be especially harmful when you are in the role of a mentor or trainer. I too made several mistakes where I unknowingly made assumptions based on data I collected and have upset people with the conclusions. The point here is that that’s ok, as long as you are consciously aware you are making those conclusions based on your assumptions.
This is a recent experience I encountered:
- I see a colleague coming into the meeting room, arriving late to a large meeting in the morning. They look exhausted as they get out their laptop. They are drinking coffee. I had tried to reach out to them numerous times in the past half hour only to have no response. I know there was a party with some people at the office last night, but not sure who went.
- From this, I select only some of the data. I focus on the fact that they look exhausted, they are late and there was a party last night. Being late is not acceptable culturally in my country.
- I make an assumption. My colleague was at the party and they partied too late in the night, and so they overslept.
- From here, a conclusion is made. They are so unprofessional! This makes me frustrated.
- After the meeting, I give them harsh feedback. What I didn’t know was that this person was left off the email thread where we rescheduled the meeting. Oops!
How to prevent this from happening? We need to stop ourselves before we climb too far up the ladder, and actually try to climb down. This is hard.
What I’ve found works is actually using the ladder of inference from the very bottom, when I give the feedback and telling them my whole thought process. I tell my mentee, this is what I saw the other day, these were my observations. This part is important — because data is evidence, it is proof. From this, what assumptions did I make, and then what conclusion did I personally come to? I’ve found that when I took this approach, from explaining how you perceived the situation rather than stating an absolute, my mentees opened up more, and was willing to share why the conclusion was wrong/right. It took me many iterations to improve this, and I’m still not unconsciously competent at it. It still takes a lot of thinking and isn’t my natural reaction.
It is however important to recognise that good leadership demands this. To be consciously aware that their conclusion may not be correct and to look for a conversation to validate their thoughts rather than trying to reprimand. Giving feedback to help others grow is an art, and it takes a lifetime to get right.