The Stepladder Technique

Making Better Group Decisions

Simple steps for group decision-making.

© iStockphoto

Making decisions within a group can often be challenging. When things go well, they can go very well. However, when things go wrong, you can end up mired in conflict. Some people may fight for recognition and position, others may be over-critical or disruptive, while others may sit quietly and not contribute anything to the overall effort. Because of this, groups can often spin out of control and make worse decisions than individuals working on their own.

When this happens, it's easy to see why some people throw their hands up in frustration and give up. However, when a group works in the right way, it really WORKS. Groups that function effectively together can outperform individuals and make much better decisions.

But how do you make your group effective? How do you get all group members to contribute and inspire one another to create great ideas and solutions?

The Stepladder Technique is a useful method for encouraging individual participation in group decision making.

What is the Stepladder Technique?

The Stepladder Technique is a simple tool that manages how members enter the decision-making group. Developed by Steven Rogelberg, Janet Barnes-Farrell and Charles Lowe in 1992, it encourages all members to contribute on an individual level BEFORE being influenced by anyone else. This results in a wider variety of ideas, it prevents people from "hiding" within the group, and it helps people avoid being "stepped on" or overpowered by stronger, louder group members.

All of this helps the group make better decisions.

How to Use the Tool

The Stepladder Technique has five basic steps. Here's how it works:

Step 1: Before getting together as a group, present the task or problem to all members. Give everyone sufficient time to think about what needs to be done and to form their own opinions on how to best accomplish the task or solve the problem.

Step 2: Form a core group of two members. Have them discuss the problem.

Step 3: Add a third group member to the core group. The third member presents ideas to the first two members BEFORE hearing the ideas that have already been discussed. After all three members have laid out their solutions and ideas, they discuss their options together.

Step 4: Repeat the same process by adding a fourth member, and so on, to the group. Allow time for discussion after each additional member has presented his or her ideas.

Step 5: Reach a final decision only after all members have been brought in and presented their ideas.

The Stepladder Technique is similar to the Delphi Method  , another tool that's often used in groups to prevent Groupthink   and to encourage participation. While both tools have the same objective, they differ in a few key ways:

  • In the Delphi Method, an objective facilitator or leader manages the group. In the Stepladder Technique, all members are equal.
  • The Delphi Method keeps members anonymous. The facilitator manages the flow of information, and members may have no idea who else is in the group. The Stepladder Technique involves face-to-face meetings, so everyone knows who the other members are.
  • The Delphi Method is a lengthy process, while the Stepladder Technique is much quicker.
  • The Delphi Method is often used for major decisions that need input from a large number of people. The Stepladder Technique works best with smaller groups that make a wide range of decisions.


Groups can begin to lose their effectiveness and ability to make good quality decisions if they have too many members. Keep your group small – four to seven team members – to maximize effectiveness.

Key Points

The Stepladder Technique is a step-by-step approach that helps you ensure that all members of a group participate and are heard. The technique allows shy, quiet people to present their ideas before other group members can influence them, and it allows everyone to hear many different viewpoints before reaching a final decision.

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Comments (5)
  • Michele wrote Over a month ago
    Hi PhillipS5428,

    A terrific suggestion!

    I am an introvert and I often have difficulty intervening in a conversation. I wait for the pause that sometimes does not happen. Allowing an opportunity for quiet and introverted people to be the core group allows time for them to reflect on the problem and think through how they will respond before others share their ideas.

    To learn more about extroverted people:

    And, here's an article that describes introverts and how to manage them:


  • PhillipS5428 wrote Over a month ago
    I think it will be helpful to assign quiet people to be the two core people mentioned in step 2. This will give them the opportunity to have the most information sooner and having that I think will help them be more bold in their later discussions with others who are not as quiet. If you made the quiet people later members they may add their ideas then get shot down quickly by the others and, because the others combined their ideas and information earlier, the other less quiet people may not give the quiet people a chance to talk.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi icbarr

    A warm welcome to the Club and to the forums as well.

    I think many people struggle with staff members or colleagues (and even life partners!) not listening. Do have a look at our article, 'Six Thinking Hats'
    Do you think you'll be able to implement this? It forces people to look at something from a specific perspective. Let me know your thoughts on this. Do have a look at our article about active listening.
    Also, how about letting people know that they're welcome to shoot down an idea, but only if they have a new idea they can present? Make it a fun exercise for part of your meeting and see how it goes.
    When using the stepladder technique, maybe start your core group with one person who doesn't mind change and one person who dislikes change - and then try and keep that balance throughout the activity. Do you think some of this may work for you?

    If you'd like to bounce ideas around or get more input on challenges you may experience, please don't hesitate to post on one of the forums such as Career Cafe Central. That's where we all help and learn from one another and it's great to get input from like-minded individuals from around the globe.

    icbarr, if you need any help around the forums, please don't hesitate to let me know.

    Kind regards
  • icbarr wrote Over a month ago
    anyone has a tool that accomplishes the opposite. How to get loud people to listen?
    Seriously, the management team in my organization often gets push back from team members who are not amicable to change. How can opinions be heard without derailing the process?
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    The beauty in this tool is that it ensure(s) that all members of a group participate and are heard. The technique allows shy, quiet people to present their ideas before other group members can influence them

    So often in group situations you have the vocal participants and the quiet ones. Yet, it can be the quiet ones that come up with key points that shift the decision making process. This tool gives the quiet ones an opportunity to speak up without being overshadowed by the more vocal members.


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