Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 248
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Running on Three Cylinders

Research discovers a superior technique for managing important meetings.

Have you ever chaired a meeting where some people talked too much and others not enough? Have you ever attended a meeting and felt your contribution did not receive adequate consideration? Have you ever opened the hood of a small, four-cylinder car, pulled off one of the spark plug wires, and then driven it to work?

In all of these situations, objectives will be reached: The meetings will end with a sense of resolution and closure, and you will get to work in your coughing, gasping, and jerking car. But in all three cases, there is frustration, lower performance, and possible damage that diminishes your ability to correct these problems in the future. Good people find new employers who will make better use of their contributions, and your car may blow a gasket.

In 1992 researchers invented a novel way of structuring group discussions named the stepladder technique. In the years since, other researchers have tested this technique and found that groups using it outperform conventional groups. Most recently, Steven Rogelberg, from Bowling Green State University, tested the stepladder technique in an audioconferencing setting, and, once again, obtained superior performance. The conclusion is obvious: The stepladder technique needs to be in your repertoire of useful management practices, and by the end of this article, it will be.

First, the technique.

Imagine four people who must meet and consider an important question. Using the stepladder technique, they would follow these rules. 1) Everyone would consider the question before the meeting and be prepared to present his or her best ideas when asked to do so. 2) Two of the people would begin the meeting alone and explain their ideas to each other. 3) Next, the third person would join the group and explain his or her best ideas. This person would speak first and would not be interrupted until he or she was finished. Then, the three would discuss all of their ideas with the goal of ensuring that everyone understood them. 4) The fourth person would then join the group and follow the same pattern as when the third person joined. (Additional members would follow the same pattern.) 5) Once all members of the group have joined and discussed their own ideas and the ideas of all the group members, then the group would move toward a decision.

This technique has led to superior performance in all the settings in which it has been tested, so far.

In his article, Professor Rogelberg discussed two advantages the stepladder technique offers. First, it forces all group members to be engaged in the task. When people arrive for the meeting, they know they will be the first to speak, and they know that their listeners will quickly perceive if they know what they're talking about. They must know the subject and they must demonstrate that they have given it some thought, or they will lose face in the group. Second, since making a decision is postponed until all members are present and have explained their ideas, the preliminary goal of understanding everyone's ideas leads to better communication.

Professor Rogelberg also discovered a third advantage in his research. The stepladder technique allows the best members of the groups to emerge and dominate the final decisions.

In any group considering important questions, members vary in the value of their contributions. Effective groups tap this resource. They encourage those with the best ideas to speak up, and then make use of these ideas to formulate their decisions and plot their actions. In Rogelberg's research, he identified the best members in each of the groups. In those using the stepladder technique, 17 of these individuals emerged as most influential in their groups, but of 26 groups using a conventional approach, only 7 of their best individuals emerged as most influential in their groups. In other words, most of the time, stepladder groups succeeded in making use of their best members' contributions (17 of 26 groups). Conversely, most of the time, conventional groups failed to make use of their best members' contributions (7 of 26 groups).

Rogelberg also found one drawback for the stepladder technique: it takes more time. Stepladder groups met an average of seven minutes longer than conventional groups.

Some problems and opportunities are so important that investing a little more time to improve the quality of the decisions that emerge from a group are worth the cost. When that is true for you, use the stepladder technique.

Reference: Rogelberg, Steven, Matthew O'Connor, and Matthew Sederburg (2002) Using the Stepladder Technique to Facilitate the Performance of Audioconferencing Groups. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87 (5), 994-1000.

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