How we perceive information in the workplace is as important as what we perceive.

Being aware of employees’ thought processes within an organisation should facilitate effective communication from the boardroom to the storeroom.

Conflict in the workplace is still common despite the attention given to understanding management styles. This conflict arises because little attention is paid to how thinking styles influence interaction among employees.

What sets us apart from other mammals is that we are beings who use rational and at times not so rational thought. In other words, unlike animals, we can think.

Man has the ability to be introspective about his perceptions. Yet time after time, conflict arises in the workplace, because after selecting and interpreting information according to our own frame of reference and acting accordingly, our actions may not correspond to the real data as we have jumped to conclusions.

Often this involves intensely emotional situations, which lead to heated debates. Once these emotions have subsided, resentment and lack of co-operation follow.

John as a team member assigned to a new project, is perceived to be quiet and appears not to contribute to initial discussions about the project.

How will the rest of the team interpret the information? Does this mean that John is not interested or is incompetent and can’t be relied on or is there some other explanation based on information not selected or known? Team members interpret information from their own frames of reference, which are shaped by their cultural biases, beliefs and experiences.

There will be as many ways of perceiving one set of real data as there are thought processes. The saying ‘your truth, my truth and the real truth’ rings true. Conflict will arise when we see our own unique ‘truth’ as the ‘real’ truth.

Understanding each other’s thought processes should help co-workers to examine the way they react to information they receive from one another.

Employees aware of their thought processes will not jump to conclusions quite so readily.

Instead, they will actively begin asking questions on how they are interpreting information. Do I think about why I have perceived the information the way I have? Do I ask questions? Have I asked John about himself? Do I really understand the information as I see it? Or do I see and act before thinking about it?

Ladder of Inferences

Using organisation psychologist, Chris Argyris’s ‘Ladder of Inferences’ as part of the communication process in the workplace, will assist employees to avoid potentially volatile situations and reduce overreactions.

Essentially Argyris’s model identifies a series of cognitive steps we use in the communication process and assists employees to be aware of how they process information. It starts with the real information. The members of the team may select certain information for the real information, e.g. John is quiet, and ignore other data possibly leading them away from the real information.

It would be easy to jump to conclusions. What could each member of the team infer from the above? John is lazy and shows no interest and is not committed enough or he is not assertive and can’t be relied on? Their past experiences may have brought to light a quiet person, who was lazy, unreliable and unassertive. They assume that quiet people who are part of a team are unreliable and uninterested or unassertive.

Team members select from the set of real information and attach their own meanings to it based on their beliefs, experiences and cultural biases.

The next step in the process is that they will make assumptions, based on the meaning they attach to the information, possibly that John isn’t capable of making a valuable contribution to the project. The assumptions are followed by conclusions, e.g. John is not going to deliver, and the final step in Argyris’s ladder of inference is that the team will act according to the conclusions they have drawn. They may perhaps talk among each other and decide that they don’t want him as part of the team. Resentment, (action) towards John may grow and may threaten the success of the project.

What has happened here is that the team has gone from perceiving to acting without going through the communication process of high advocacy and high enquiry, which would reduce and minimise actions based on potentially distorted perceptions. The danger here is that their interpretations and assumptions may be based on ungrounded premises.

The ladder of inference suggests a communication structure of high advocacy (what I think), high enquiry (what do you think?) as this model provides the opportunity for sharing information and learning how someone else has thought about the same information. Simply put, two people should exercise both statement and question within a communication situation. ‘This is what I think, what do you think?’ then being open minded about the other person’s perceptions of the real information.

The secret in effective communication is for the team to question their own thoughts about their perceptions and assumptions as well as those of others, including John’s thoughts about the perceived behaviour. They would need to examine their assumptions about the situation? On what are they basing their assumptions? How are their perceptions all different and why? Team members should examine how they reached their interpretations rather than what those interpretations are since these could change if they become aware of how they arrived at the conclusions they drew. In other words, are they failing to achieve a deeper understanding of the situation?

Each member of the team should be open-minded about the possibility that their interpretations of the information and the assumptions stemming from it may be wrong.

Being aware of their thought processes encourages critical analyses of workers’ perceived interpretation of information within the environment of business and supports thinking before acting.