Andrea Bocelli as an example of understanding assumptions and suspending judgement to improve leadership and overall workplace effectiveness.
Work colleagues get a lot of exercise climbing the Ladder of Inference. We take action on our beliefs from stories that we solidify in our minds. It is done within seconds. This is especially dangerous when the ladder climbing is done by senior executives in snap judgments about colleagues at lower levels. Projects are taken away, erroneous information is passed along, missed opportunities for professional growth and development (on both sides) take place, and more unfortunate circumstances happen.
When Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli delivered his first performance in New York City several years ago, a critic wrote something along the lines of, Bocelli’s magnificence has clearly gone to his head as he failed to establish eye contact with his adoring audience. The critic had risen up the Ladder of Inference (see image below) by first selecting from the observable data the fact (or behavior) that Andrea did not establish eye contact. This part no one can dispute.
The meaning he applied to the behavior is that lack of eye contact signals megalomania. The assumption he drew is that anyone who is talented (or, in other cases, intelligent, beautiful, etc.) feels s/he is at a higher level than the rest and, thus, does not need to look anyone in the eye. The conclusion is that Bocelli was “full of himself” because he is such a fantastic singer that this clear talent gives him justification to act as though he is better than the rest. The critic’s belief is that Bocelli’s personality is a detriment to his talent.
If you know anything about Andrea Bocelli, you would then know that he is blind. Blind people have a considerable challenge to look anyone in the eye.
Here is one remedy to avoid this workplace hazard:
- DESCRIBE THE BEHAVIOR: Andrea, I saw you sing with your eyes closed.
- ASK FOR INTERPRETATION: Would you please tell me what that means to you?
(Colleague interprets behavior).
- EVALUATE: Based off of this information, you can decide whether Andrea merits a more favorable review for his outstanding performance.
Here is another remedy to avoid this workplace hazard:
The mentor conversation may involve impact. It would sound something like this:
“Andrea, I noticed that you performed with your eyes closed (BEHAVIOR). The impact I had is that we are inferior to you. I know that only I own my emotions (ACCOUNTABILITY), and I am concerned (FEELING) that others may feel the same way; so, I wanted to privately (PROFESSIONAL) offer you this feedback in an effort to support your success at our organization (CONSTRUCTIVE). The culture here is about treated others as equals (MENTORING).”
Wait for response. In this instance, the mentor might feel embarrassed upon discovering the reason; in other cases, the mentor may wish to co-create an action plan and follow up.
Mentor feedback focuses on behavior. It is constructive feedback; not destructive feedback that would leave a colleague feeling as though he may have jeopardized his future at the organization and/or instantly alienated himself from colleagues.
Above all, AVOID LABELS (i.e. adjectives) and focus on behaviors. Telling Andrea (or anyone else, for that matter) that he is snobby, big-headed, stuck-up, etc. does not help him get to where the larger system can benefit from his talent. How can your words and actions move the organization forward? Speak with the person who is worthy of your counsel and perspective. That will lead you, and the other individual, towards much richer conversations and outcomes.
Perhaps the Ladder of Inference has happened to you? Have you ever jumped to a conclusion about a colleague, based off of scant information and your personal experience, which led you astray? Or, have you been wrongly accused or pejoratively labeled as having negative intent, because of someone else’s perspective shaped by their experience? Chances are, you have answered Yes to one of these questions. If that is the case, you are guilty of one thing: Giving yourself more grief than necessary.
Suspend judgment and investigate. You will thank yourself later.
Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization
Photo credit: Flickr/La Mandriola e Ragone Agri