[Exercise] The Ladder of Inference

4 min read

A cultural exercise that makes us pay attention to how we think, create and reinforce assumptions and beliefs. 

Inspired by Designing Regenerative Cultures, by Daniel Wahl, 2016

I regularly get approached by friends, colleagues, mid to low-level employees, directors, and the like who all see the importance of culture work.

We start discussing some of the experiences they are having within their culture and we start ideating some strategies that we quickly become excited to get going and continue the progress by setting up a further discussion with their core leaders who ultimately make the decisions in these types of investments. 

Unfortunately, I regularly hear “it just isn’t the time to do culture work” OR "what do you mean, our culture is great here... we don't need this!" 

I always find this interesting because I hear the perspective and experiences that other members of the organization are having but when it comes to those who drive the strategic initiatives of the organization, they have an entirely different perception and belief of the situation. And ultimately need convincing of the importance of it.

It continues to be a theme and pattern in organizations that need culture evolution work the most and is impossible to ignore.

In my experience: The people who need to be convinced of the importance of cultural work are just not aware of the problem. They are disconnected, not listening, or more often than not, viewing their team through their privileged lens.


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That led me to remember a classic quote and tool that Daniel Wahl references in his book, Designing Regenerative Cultures, "Believing is seeing and seeing is believing." 

He shares that one of the critical first steps to driving leadership engagement when they are conflicting culture change is to provide a process that allows them to think differently and question their own assumptions and the mental models they employ.

If anything, I think this exercise is something we all should reflect on and utilize. 


Why do we believe what we believe? 

What are we taking for granted? 

What 'facts' are we interpreting to reach our conclusions? And why? 


Most people think that perception is the simple act of opening your eyes and seeing what is out there. This is not actually the case. 

Our realities show up in many different ways depending on our values, way of thinking, experiences, and the mental models that we use to make sense of things. 

Just reflect on how this last year has gone and how divided people have become around the world situations we are in.

Why is this?

It's because we organize these ideas differently and structure them in a way that allows us to see and pay attention to things and make sense of the world based on these narratives and perceptions that we build in our minds. 

I think all of us have been in situations where we found ourselves disagreeing with someone over how to assess certain situations or interpret the reality of something. 

For me, this shows up in my discussions around the current state of organizational cultures. 

To support these conflicting perceptions, I have started to use the tool, "The Ladder of Inference." 


ladder of inference.

I have found that if you take the time to assess these situations, and really interpret the basic assumptions and mental models that people have, conflicts can easily be resolved. Or at least to a point to 'agree to disagree' and accept the different perspectives and core beliefs. 

This is a crucial skill for anyone in positions that want to drive change, create alignment, and initiate culture change within their organizations. 

The ladder of inference is a tool that empowers us to pay attention to how we think and reinforce our assumptions and beliefs. 

Developed by Harvard Professor Chris Argyris, this model highlights our assessments of situations. 

It illustrates how our assumptions shape the way our perceptions form and how we reach certain conclusions. 

The tool offers a series of questions that we ask ourselves and others to become more aware of this process. This ultimately guides how we respond to situations and highlights how beliefs are formed based on past experiences. Showing our dominant belief system and worldviews that sometimes ignore facts or other interpretations. 

By becoming aware of these different steps in the ladder, we can then empower ourselves and our leaders to question their own conclusions and beliefs. 


Here is a list of questions that can be used in taking individuals or groups through their own process of realization: 

  • Which observable facts and experiences am I basing my reasoning on, and are there other facts to consider?
  • How and why did I choose certain data and regard other data as less relevant?
  • What are the underlying assumptions I am employing and are they valid? (Based on what underlying assumptions am I judging their validity?)
  • What beliefs underlie my perspective and how have these beliefs influenced what I observed and which data I chose?
  • Why am I proposing to follow this course of action and what alternatives or complementary actions should/could we consider?


Closing Thoughts: 

Now, going through this process in a conflicting group might now fully resolve the conflict, but it will definitely help gain a better understanding of the different perspectives. 

That in end will help us form a more systemic understanding of the situation. 

Which in turn, offers us opportunities to discover common ground which will help us move forward on the issues in a more inclusive way. 

I have found that simply going through a process of deeper questioning informs us of gateways towards evolutionary growth that we might have once perceived as impossible. 

Our cultural narrative shapes our individual experiences of how we perceive and explain what is out there. Becoming more aware of this process is the first step to a new way of thinking that might help us resolve the many problems our cultures face today. 

[This practice is from a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]



Cultural Evolution can be hard. But it’s worth it!

That’s why cultural evolution needs to become incremental evolution that is baked into your practice.

If you adopt Cultural Evolution practices, you’ll have a stronger, more resilient, and sustainable organization.

If you are interested in building a sustainable and thriving culture or need support figuring out where to start, subscribe to our newsletter or contact us today! (zech@perennialculture.com

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