The Stepladder Technique

The Stepladder Technique - toolshero

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This article provides a practical explanation of The Stepladder Technique. After reading, you’ll have a better understanding of how you can encourage individual participation in group decisions while using creativity.

What Is The Stepladder Technique?

The Stepladder Technique is a decision-making method to simplify effective decision-making in a group. The goal is to make sure that the thoughts and ideas of all members are made available to the group, so these can be considered while the group makes a decision. The method was developed by Steven Rogelberg, Janet Barnes-Farrell and Charles Lowe in 1992.

Stepladder Technique steps

The Stepladder Technique has five basic steps.

1. Explain the problem

Present the task or problem to all members before meeting as a group.
It is important that everyone is given sufficient time to think about what must be done and to form an opinion on how the task can best be executed or the problem can best be resolved.

2. Build the ladder

Form a core group of two members. Let them discuss the problem.

3. Continue the process

Add a third group member to the core group. The third member proposes ideas to the first two members before being informed of the ideas that have already been discussed. After all three members have presented their solutions and ideas, they discuss their options together.

4. Complete the ladder

Repeat the same process by adding a fourth member to the group, etc. It’s important to plan sufficient time for discussion after each additional member has presented his or her ideas.

5. Make a decision

Do not make a decision until after all members have been included and their ideas have been presented.

Why The Stepladder Technique?

The Stepladder Technique is a step-by-step approach that guarantees equal participation. It’s important that even the shyest and quietest group members have the opportunity to present their ideas. This helps to make sure all group members are heard, so no potential idea is left out. The intention is to have all possible solutions on the table and discuss these without any bias.

The importance of The Stepladder Technique is emphasised by research by Gary Stasser, James Larson and others who indicate that groups often fail to take into account relevant information and that this could harm the quality of group decisions. Additionally, the method helps in creating a broader range of ideas and prevents people from ‘hiding’ within the group. It also protects people who are less eager to voice their own opinion against other, more active members of the group.

Avoiding the pitfall of groupthink is another reason why the Stepladder method is useful. Groupthink is caused by group dynamics and occurs when groups reach a consensus opinion or decision without thinking critically, or testing and challenging their ideas. Groupthink particularly occurs in coherent groups where everyone knows each other.

Getting started

The five steps of The Stepladder Technique are further clarified below:

Stepladder Technique steps - toolshero

1. Explain the problem

First, everyone in the group must be informed of the problem to be solved. This step clarifies to the individuals that they will be included in the team solving the problem. Additionally, they will get the opportunity to think about the problem and solution themselves. In this step, it is important to give everyone space. So, before the group meets, each individual must have carefully considered the problem.

2. Build the ladder

The second step is to ask two members of the group to meet and discuss the problem. These people have already had the opportunity to think about the problem individually, so when they meet, they will have several ideas to discuss. Try to provide this duo with a private, comfortable environment where they can discuss all the various issues involved in this decision.

3. Continue the process

After the duo has discussed the problem, you will ask a third person to participate in their discussions. The size of this meeting is crucial for the success of the process as a whole. When the third person joins, he or she will first present their ideas to the other two before anything is discussed as a group. In this way, the third person will not be influenced by the opinion of the first two. This approach is aimed at avoiding ‘groupthink’ – you want everyone who joins the group to present their own thoughts, without being influenced by the thoughts of the other team members.

4. Complete the ladder

As you would expect, the fourth step is to continue until all team members have joined the meeting. Each new person entering the room must have the time to present their thoughts without first hearing what has already been discussed. Once the new person has been given the opportunity to present, they can be informed of the other ideas to give them a complete overview of what the group has discussed.

5. Making a decision

Naturally, the final step in the process is making a decision. Please note that the decision can only be made after all people have been added to the group, and all opinions have been heard. Even when you think a decision is obvious after having heard the first few people, you must still wait to draw a conclusion until everyone has joined. With all ideas and opinions floating around, you should be able to make a team decision that is in the organisation’s best interest.

The general goal of this decision-making method is to ensure everyone is heard equally. If you were to hold a regular meeting with all team members to make a decision, it is likely not everyone’s opinion would be heard in an environment that makes them feel at ease. Some people might be overwhelmed by large meetings, making them too nervous to organise their thoughts on the topic, while those thoughts are very important. Additionally, the use of the Stepladder Technique makes it more likely that you will receive the most honest and open opinions on the topic.

Short explanation

The idea behind The Stepladder Technique is the fact that, in most cases, your team will consist of a diversity of personalities. Some of these personalities will be ‘louder’ or ‘more active’ than others. These people are more aggressive to make sure their opinions are heard, while others will adopt a more passive approach. To give everyone an equal opportunity to voice their opinion, you must make sure that everyone gets the chance to present their thoughts in a way that isn’t intimidating or overwhelming.

Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of The Stepladder Technique or do you have anything to add? In which scenarios do you think this method will be effective? What do you believe are success factors that contribute to the practical application of this theory?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
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More information

  1. Michinov, N., Morice, J., & Ferrières, V. (2015). A step further in Peer Instruction: Using the Stepladder technique to improve learning. Computers & Education, 91, 1-13.
  2. Orpen, C. (1997). Using the stepladder technique to improve team performance. Psychological Studies.
  3. Rogelberg, S. G., & O’Connor, M. S. (1998). Extending the stepladder technique: An examination of self-paced stepladder groups. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2(2), 82.
  4. Rogelberg, S. G., Barnes-Farrell, J. L., & Lowe, C. A. (1992). The stepladder technique: An alternative group structure facilitating effective group decision making. Journal of applied psychology, 77(5), 730.
  5. Rogelberg, S. G., O’Connor, M. S., & Sederburg, M. (2002). Using the stepladder technique to facilitate the performance of audioconferencing. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(5), 994.

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