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The joy of six: picking the perfect size team

10:36am January 17 2023

When a team gets bigger than six people it can become unfocused and ineffective, experts say. (Getty)

When it comes to office team building, managers often fall into the trap of including too many people, leading to dysfunction and poor performance, according to workplace experts.

“A lot of the time, teams are too big,” says coaching psychologist Amelia Twiss. “Once a team gets larger than about six people, it starts to become ineffective because the points of contact and communication increase exponentially each time you add another member.”

Trying to be inclusive can inadvertently result in poor team design, Twiss says.

“Sometimes it’s office politics: instead of thinking about the purpose of the team, a whole bunch of people are thrown in, such as one person from each business unit. The team ends up having too many people and it quickly becomes unfocused and ineffective.”

When a team is too big, members can become disconnected from its purpose. The work itself is fragmented and dissatisfaction spreads. ‘Social loafing’ can also kick in - when a team member makes less effort when they’re judged as part of a group rather than individually. 

Coaching psychologist Amelia Twiss. (Supplied)

Many organisations need to improve the way that teams are rewarded, and that starts with being clear on how to measure the outcomes, Twiss says.

It is also common for the manager as team leader to receive most or all of the credit, which can be demotivating next time around.

Twiss sees organisations mislabelling teams when they are in fact distinct work groups.

“Often a team isn’t actually a team,” she says. “You will see groups of people working on similar tasks and they are labelled as a team, but they’re doing things independently. They are not interconnected in terms of working towards a particular outcome.” 

Talan Miller, founder and managing director of Sabre Corporate Development, agrees that smaller teams provide more clarity and the working relationships between members have greater depth. The more complex the work, the smaller the team ought to be.

“Small is beautiful,” he says. “Once teams become larger than four-to-six people you can get duplications of behavioural contributions. Some may start competing for the same bandwidths of contribution.”

Miller has developed team building programs using the evidence-based Belbin model, which is used in more than 30 countries. It measures the strengths and weaknesses of individual team members and assesses their chemistry before devising tasks.

The model is named after English researcher Dr Meredith Belbin, now 96, who is widely considered the father of the modern Team Role Theory.

“Teams need to be small enough for people to understand one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and then be able to discuss them in a meaningful way,” says Miller. “Strained or unclear working relationships are often the sign of ‘too big’.” 

Talan Miller, founder and managing director of Sabre Corporate Development. (Supplied)

Renowned anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes that 150 is the maximum number of social connections that a human can actively maintain. The theory is known worldwide as the Dunbar Number. 

Organisations which strive to go beyond this may see diminishing returns. Global clothing manufacturer Gore-Tex adheres to Dunbar’s theory: it breaks off a division as soon as it reaches 150 people. 

“Dunbar rightly points out that 150 is the maximum number of relationships we can meaningfully have – beyond that and there is little depth to the relationship,” says Twiss. “That number is compared to the size of a small village, where you might know everybody's name and something about what they do, and their family.” 

“The human brain has developed to suit meaningful engagement with a finite number of members within our intimate ‘tribe’,” adds Miller. “Thus, small teams have their own cultures that don’t fit within what is often an artificially contrived corporate culture. Teams possess their own behavioural chemistry and it is a fact that should be acknowledged and embraced.”

In large organisations, hierarchies are often used as a way of maintaining workable size teams.

“In competitive and challenging environments, someone must lead,” says Miller.

However, at digital agency Eurisko, Mike Bullen has deliberately maintained a flat structure since he founded the company in 2008. He believes that it enhances teamwork and client outcomes.

“I've worked in corporate environments where there has been a clear hierarchy, and I’ve seen frequent conflict when people try to out-position each other,” he says. 

“Not everyone was pulling towards the same goal. I find that people take on more ownership when the organisation has a flat structure.” 

Jessica Mudditt is the author of Our Home in Myanmar. She is based in Sydney and as a freelance journalist, she has an interest in workplace issues and technology.

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