When change happens, don't run up the ladder of inference

Issue August 2014 By Susan Letterman White

Hypothetical #1: Loren has been a partner at Smith, Green, and Post for close to 10 years. Loren is "a team player." Until one year ago, Loren was the "right hand" to named partner Chris Smith. Loren managed client relationships and was the first or second chair in most of the complex litigation that Chris claimed as origination. Loren never complained about the share of the firm profits, although the differential between the firm's highest and lowest paid partners had been widening over the years. Last year Loren was told to develop originations, experienced a pay cut and learned that Chris was giving work to other lawyers, junior to Loren. This year Loren was told that despite finding other sources of work to boost billable hours, Loren needed to leave the firm by the end of the year.

Hypothetical #2: Taylor hung a shingle after years of working in larger firms and as Taylor's firm grew, the time came to hire another lawyer. After much searching, Taylor hired Sydney about six years ago. It took Taylor and Sydney six months before true comfort in the working relationship developed. After five years, Taylor was certain in the belief that Sydney would become Taylor's partner. Their work styles were complimentary and they had become close friends. The past 24 months had seen a significant slow down in work and revenue. Indeed this topic was the first point of discussion for every office meeting. Additionally, Sydney had moved out of state and back home to be near family as Sydney's family grew larger with the birth of children. Sydney had expressed concern about the drop in revenue and the cost to the firm of keeping Sydney on payroll. When Sydney told Taylor of an intention to take a position with another law firm, Taylor was devastated.

Neither Loren nor Taylor wanted the changes they were experiencing to occur. Both were concerned about how to manage the change and still meet their interests, needs, wants, expectations, hopes, dreams, concerns and goals.

People often experience change as an unanticipated and undesirable loss and a "felt need" to change or escape from a particular uncomfortable situation. The simple fact is that we are loss-averse. As Nobel Prize-winning economist, Daniel Kahneman says, "the asymmetric intensity of the motives to avoid losses and to achieve gains shows up almost everywhere." When our thinking and behavior is driven by an intense desire to avoid feelings of loss instead of taking the time to adjust to those feelings and allow them to dissipate at the right time, we stop thinking effectively and instead jump to conclusions. This hinders our ability to move forward strategically and intentionally toward our true interests.

For example, Taylor may be in shock from the surprise that Sydney is leaving. Taylor may also feel a need for more revenue in the business. Instead of first making sense of Sydney's departure in a way that allows forward movement of actions, Taylor may not consider the possibility of maintaining any part of the relationship with Sydney. Instead Taylor may jump to the conclusion that the relationship is over, that there will be nobody with a complementary skill set and the business won't survive. Chris Argyris called this thinking, running up the ladder of inference.

In the previous example, Taylor may be only able to notice a small set of data relative to the departure of Sydney - that the relationship with Sydney is ended. Taylor selected a piece of data and attached a limited meaning - that the relationships with Sydney is over and without Sydney, the law firm couldn't be managed well or easily.

In the example with Loren, Loren's identity as a law firm lawyer may limit options for new positions outside of law firms. If Loren begins with a position that it is better to be a partner in a law firm than counsel in a corporation, Loren won't notice or consider any opportunities that might be a better fit with Loren's personality or interests.

When change happens to you, begin with an open mind and challenge your assumptions about the situation. Find your true interests and possible options.

Questions to ask:

How did things change? What are my assumptions about the change(s)? Why? What if my assumption was wrong?

What are my interests, wants, needs, preferences, hopes and concerns?

How can I move forward toward my interests?

Where should I look for options?

Susan Letterman White, JD, MS (Organization Development) is a strategic change consultant for clients in professional service industries. Her work is designed to improve organizational, group, and individual performance, leadership, work-flow, diversity and inclusion, communication and business development. Her projects often include data collection and analysis, group facilitation, mediation, training and coaching.