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As leaders, it’s often our job to evaluate the work of those that we lead.

In the midst of all to-dos on the list, it’s easy to default to a “one size fits all’ method of evaluation.

You’re busy.  It’s easy to lead on auto-pilot, using the methods that are familiar.

When you’re coaching and evaluating, it’s easy to unconsciously climb up the ladder of inference:

  • You observe data
  • You select data
  • You add meaning
  • You make assumptions
  • You draw conclusions
  • You adopt beliefs
  • You take actions

 We infer things all the time.  But what about the times when the meaning you add is off base?

 Your ladder of inference is suddenly leaning against the wrong wall.

 When the meaning is off:

  • Your assumptions are wrong
  • Your conclusions are faulty
  • Your beliefs are narrow
  • Your actions hurt more than they help

 Mistakes will happen.  We’re human.  But what can a leader do to make sure that the meaning we have is based on a valid understanding of the situation?


 Ask deep questions. 

 Really listen to the responses.

 Understand things not just at the surface level, but strive to get below the surface.

 Then rise up and see things with a big picture perspective.

 A client named Joanne really brought this to life for me last week.

 Joanne works in the cosmetics industry.

 You know the women behind the store cosmetics counter?

 Joanne has managed these women for years.

 Early in her career, Joanne had a new employee, Emma, who’d been working in one her stores for about 6 months.

 Emma was about 18 years old.  Emma was terrific with customers, but rough around the edges.

When Emma would do makeovers, her counter would end up a total mess.   When Joanne came to see her, her uniform would look dirty, with bits of makeup on it.

Joanne knew that appearance and neatness was not a nice to do: it was a must do. huge company value, with policies that could not be violated.  

Joanne was really thinking about letting Emma go.  As much as she liked Emma, and as much as she had potential, her deficiencies were a big performance issue.  

Joanne told me,

I was about to go in and tell her that she should pack her things and leave, but when I looked in her eyes, something told me that there was something else going on. I needed to get more information.

Wow…did I ever.

It turned out that Emma had been living on her own since she was 15.  Her parents had basically abandoned her.  She had next to no money and was living in a tiny single room, with no stove, no bath, nothing.

She had to wash in her sink, and also wash her clothes there as well.  She couldn’t figure out a way to wash her work uniform and find a way to get it to dry unless she had a day off in between, so her uniform would always end up dirty towards the end of her workweek.  When I thought about it, it hit me…only toward the end of the week was her uniform dirty.  It was fine on Tuesday after her day off.

Here I was, thinking I had this lazy or irresponsible girl on my hands.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Instead, Emma was busting her tail trying to do anything she could to make her job work.  To make her life work.   I never looked at her in the same way again.

I also asked her if it’d help if she had an extra uniform or two so she didn’t have to worry about cleaning it every night.  It was against policy, but in this case, I was happy to bend the rules for her situation.

When I told her that I’d like to help her with two extra uniforms, she started to cry right there in front of me.  

 The lesson I learned is that there’s always a story behind the story.  It’s my job as a leader to find out what that back story is.

Think of your team.  

What assumptions have you made about the data you observe?

What’s the story behind the story?

Alain Hunkins leads personal and professional development trainings for individuals, teams and organizations. Over the last two decades, Alain has facilitated for over a thousand groups, ranging from at-risk youth to Fortune 500 executives. He moves between the educational, artistic, not-for-profit, government and corporate worlds. Alain sharpened his facilitation skills as an Educational Consultant in New York City, developing programs on many subjects, including Conflict Resolution, Networking, Customer Service, Communication, and Leadership.
Alain earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Amherst College and his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee Professional Theater Training Program. He is a certified Leadership Challenge & MBTI facilitator, as well as a certified co-leader for ManKind Project International, whose mission is to help men lead missions of service in their families, communities, and workplaces. Alain completed the New Warrior Training Adventure in 1995.

– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.