Does size matter at work?

You know the popular saying « It’s not the size that matters »? You probably do. I hope that I’m not going to destroy a myth when I tell you that when we are talking about teams, size matters. In fact, it matters a lot! Size is probably the first question a manager should ask himself when creating a work team. Especially considering that there is no good and bad, only efficient and non-efficient when it comes to size a workforce.

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At first, one can argue that organizations are more efficient when fragmented into several small groups, not only because it facilitates social connexions, but also because the decision-making process becomes quicker. On the other hand, it would be logical and easy to believe that large organizations are made of large teams. Hence the dilemma. But why not? If teammates have clear roles and good training, then we’re good, they could be in whichever large team on the planet, right?

Saying that the number of teammates has an impact on a team is common sense. But what kind of impact are we talking about? That’s what I’m about to explain thanks to what psychology studies have discovered recently.

I’ll admit it straight away: A few studies did found benefits regarding large team structurations. According to Katzenbach, big teams have access to more resources “such as time, energy, money, and expertise”. Authors like David Cooperider have noticed that very complex tasks are executed way better by large teams, which means that the difficulty level of a task is a key factor when sizing a workforce.

The difficulty level of a task is a key factor when sizing a workforce.

For example, before getting published, a book must be read by an editing team. Each editor has a specific role, like the Project Editor whose job is to follow the development of a book from the beginning to its publication, or the Developmental Editor who fixes the story plot, whereas the Copy Editor corrects the syntactic mistakes. Now, not every publishing house has the budget to pay all these editors. But the point is simple: the more editors work on a book, the better the book will be.

Yet, there’s a limit here. Indeed, large teams can be beneficial, but very large teams can have the opposite effect. Even if the number of members in an “ideal team” change a tiny bit from a study to another, the results are quite similar. Teams with 5 to 12 members are the most effective (Wheelan, 2009; Katzenbach, & Smith,1993., Scharf, 1989), and from there, the more a team adds members, the less it will function properly. Think about it, no wonder sports teams always are around those numbers. Baseball has 9 players on the field, Rhythmic Gymnastics have 5 gymnasts on the carpet, Basketball 5 and ice Hockey 6. But all these sports are practiced on relatively small fields. Take Football for example, usually played on a 100x60 meter big field (70x110 yards). They need to be 11 players! As Katzenbach puts it, the number of team members needs to be coherent with the goals and resources available or else the performance will suffer from coordination issues.

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Teams with 5 to 12 members are the most effective

To explain this trend in an organizational context, a 2014 study by Omar Alnuaimi, Lionel Robert and Likoebe Maruping stumbled upon a phenomenon called “social loafing” as one of the consequences of dealing with larger teams. Basically, people stop working when they know and take for granted that others will do it for them. It inhibits the work performance of a group and decreases it’s motivation. In other words, if in a large corporation, a lot of people have the exact same goals as you do, we know for sure that your contribution at work will be deficient and that you will have a tendency to let others do the boring part of the job. Why? Because you know that no one will blame you personally for the team performance. The team as a whole will be blamed instead and you can just hide behind your desk and chill out. At least, that’s what the majority of us statistically do.

Another 2008 study from Praveeen Aggarwal and Connie O’Brien shows that social loafing tendencies almost disappears in smaller groups because the members will easily perceive their own contributions as a value for the whole team and will have more difficulty to feel anonymous than in a larger group. Finally, the study points out that very large corporations tend to facilitate responsibility imputations and blame attributions to other members and so to slide towards a formal dehumanizing relationship between collaborators.

Social loafing tendencies almost disappears in smaller groups because the members will easily perceive their own contributions as a value for the whole team.

Furthermore, and maybe most importantly, the size of a team can have an emotional impact on it’s members. The relationship between group size and members’ satisfaction is known since a few decades. In 1972, Steiner found that the more the group size increases the less the worker is satisfied, which indicates that in a larger group, members tend to be less happy at work than in a smaller one. A lower communication level between the members and a higher level of perceived threat from coworkers can explain this lack of satisfaction. Shortly put, team size configuration depends mostly on the type of task that needs to be accomplished, but there is a critical size beyond which a team can experience sudden falls of good coordination and communication. It’s not rocket science ;)

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Social loafing on group projects; structural antecedents and effect on student satisfaction (2008) de Aggarwal et O’Brien.
Team size, dispersion, social loafing in technology- supported teams: A perspective on the theory of moral disengagement (2014) de Alnuaimi, Robert et Maruping.
Group size, group development and group productivity (2009) de Wheelin.