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What’s the ideal size of a work team or committee?

01 Jun, 2020 Communication campaigns, PR management, Project management

If you are responsible for arranging work teams or committees, you have probably wondered what is the most productive number of people to place in a team. Despite the humorous old saying that you need a committee of one person for best results, having others in your team builds creativity and spreads the workload, allowing you to achieve your outcome faster and more effectively. So how do we determine what’s the ideal size of a work team or committee?

Often we have little choice over how many people are on a committee or team we are involved with. We just have to accept the number of people who are on the team by circumstance or because they represent larger stakeholder groups. For instance, as President of the State branch of my PR association, I had to accept nominations from members for branch council membership, whether they had much merit or not. It is a voluntary association, and out of a committee of 10-11, it was clear to me after a while that about 4 members had no intention of doing much. I think they were just on board so they could add the post to their CV. Therefore, the other committee members had to carry more of the load as a result.

The ideal size of a work team or committee varies according to the purpose

If you are managing a department, you will often have no choice with the number of team members. You just have to meet with the whole team regularly, say, on a weekly basis. But where you have formed a group to work on a particular project, you are able to vary the numbers for the purpose. The size of the group depends on the type of task they are engaged in, the number of people who are available or relevant, the extent of specialist skills required and the urgency and importance of the task. A team of 2 or 3 people may be sufficient for a small project. On the other hand, if team members merely come together to discuss results, as in a sales team, a largish number isn’t a problem. Therefore, the ideal size of a work team or committee can be varied according to the purpose.

Ideal project team number is 5-6

However, if given the chance, you should have a view about the ideal number of people you want to appoint to a team. Researchers from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania plus other contributors points to 5-6 people being the ideal number in a group that has to accomplish a significant amount of work. When the number grows bigger than this, the productivity per person starts reducing. Certainly groups comprising more than 8 or 9 people are inefficient because they allow some members to coast (‘social loafing’), and their size allows cliques and sub-teams to form, each with their own agenda, which can derail the outcome.

Evan Wittenberg, director of the Wharton Graduate Leadership Program, notes that team size is “not necessarily an issue people think about immediately, but it is important.” According to Wittenberg, while the research on optimal team numbers is not conclusive, it does tend to fall into the 5 to 12 range, though some say 5 to 9 is best. In the work world, says Wittenberg, it has been “reinforced that 5 or 6 is the right number on a team.”

Having 6 people, including you as chairperson, is good because if you need to put a vote to the team, a decision can always be made by the team members in their own right as there is an odd number of 5 in the team plus you. Thus there can never be a stalemate or drawn vote unless a member abstains or is absent.

Another side factor to consider is that building an effective and engaged team leads to positive employer branding for the organization. Managing a team or project group that is within the range of 5-9 employees would be the most likely to contribute towards a good employer brand. You can read more about team building in my article, “Why team building is key to your employer branding.”

‘Social loafing’

Image: Maximilian Ringelmann

In a famous 1913 study, French agricultural engineer, Maximilien Ringelmann discovered that the more people who pulled on a rope together, the less effort each individual contributed. Ringelmann analyzed people alone and in groups as they pulled on a rope – like a ‘tug-of-war.’ He measured the pull force each time, and as he added more and more people to the rope, he found the total force generated by the group rose, but the average force exerted by each group member declined, thereby discrediting the theory that a team effort results in increased effort. Ringelmann attributed this to “social loafing” – a condition where a group or team tends to ‘hide’ the lack of individual effort. Two distinct processes have been identified as potential sources for the reduced productivity of groups: loss of motivation, and coordination problems. What about teams you are on? Why don’t you consider the contribution of each team member, and form a view of how much each person is contributing to the ‘team effort.’ And what can you do about it if you believe some of the desired contribution is lacking?

How do you mend a broken team?

Wharton management professor Jennifer S. Mueller says “You go back to your basics” if your team is functioning badly. Mueller’s recommendations:

  • The team needs clear goal/s. The team goals cannot be arbitrary.
  • The right members need to be assigned to the right task.
  • The team needs to be task-focused
  • Avoid having a leader who has difficulty taking the reins and structuring the process because, obviously, leadership in a group is very important. The task has to be meaningful for people to feel good about doing it, to commit to it.

However, the ideal number for an effective team depends on the type of task they will engage in. Try to avoid a virtual team meeting; try to get them to meet in the flesh. Teams who meet face-to-face are more successful. Being in the same room together leads to more productive outcomes.

Gallup: Ideal size of a work team or committee depends on the manager

Significant changes in the workplace make managing today’s employees even more difficult. Daunting challenges now include increases in remote working, matrixed teams [mix of office staff and remote workers], digitization, automation, blending of work and life, and building diverse and inclusive environments. Also, many employees have higher expectations now – they want ongoing coaching and development, not simply to follow the boss’s orders and have work delegated to them.

One way to answer the question of ideal team size is to study the engagement of employees on teams of various sizes. In a 2020 article, Gallup reports on studying the engagement levels of 3 million teams. The number of employees on these teams varied considerably. On average, teams with fewer than 10 members had the highest and the lowest levels of engagement. Essentially, teams with fewer members can more easily be swayed in one direction or the other. Managers seem to have more opportunity for influence, good or bad, in these small teams.

While team size – and other team dynamics – can influence engagement, the most important factor is the quality of the manager or team leader.

The engagement of the manager – their own experience as an employee – is foundational to quality managing. Unfortunately, two-thirds of US managers are either not engaged or actively disengaged in their work and workplace.

As Gallup research has also found, about 70% of an individual’s engagement depends on the quality of their manager. Therefore, it is vital to have good managers on board. It is essential that managers are engaged — when they are engaged and developing, they are more likely to engage and develop their employees, cooperate with managers on other teams, and encourage their team to cooperate with other teams. And the reverse is true when they’re disengaged.

The engagement of managers is also related to the number of people on the manager’s team. As the number of team members increases, the manager’s engagement decreases. But there is an important variance to this – the decline in engagement with increasing team size is not the same for all managers. Some managers maintain high engagement with increases in team size. So, what accounts for the high engagement of some managers regardless of their team’s size?

Image: Gallup 2020 article.

Five traits of engaged managers

One important factor is the manager’s innate tendencies for managing other people — their natural talent for getting exceptional work done through others. While we can all improve our effectiveness in working with others, some instinctively look forward to the interpersonal complexities while others dread them. For the latter, managing people is an ongoing struggle. The more people you give them to manage, the worse they do.

While team size — and other team dynamics — can influence engagement, the most important factor is the quality of the manager or team leader.

Gallup has found the following innate tendencies in managers who are highly successful in coaching others to high engagement and performance. Managers with an abundance of these traits are also more likely to be engaged in their work:

  1. Motivation: Inspiring teams to get exceptional work done
  2. Workstyle: Setting goals and arranging resources for the team to excel
  3. Initiation: Influencing others to act; pushing through adversity and resistance
  4. Collaboration: Building committed teams with deep bonds
  5. Thought process: Taking an analytical approach to strategy and decision-making

Gallup’s team of workplace scientists conducted a large-scale study of the manager experience in the workplace. As part of this investigation, they measured the innate management tendencies listed above among 3,579 managers. They also measured their level of engagement and the number of people they directly manage.

Managers with low levels of these five innate tendencies tended to have lower engagement regardless of the number of people they manage. On average, approximately one-third of managers are engaged in their work and workplace.

How to choose the most effective managers

You can assess and predict hardwired tendencies using scientific instruments before selecting another manager — something few organizations do, according to Gallup. To significantly improve the odds that someone will be successful in a managerial role, evaluate them on the 5 traits listed above (motivation, workstyle, initiation, collaboration and thought process).

The optimum span of control for a manager depends, in part, on how the manager is naturally wired. Unfortunately, the current practice of management promotes employees for the wrong reasons. When Gallup asked thousands of managers how they became managers, the top two reasons they gave were: success in a prior non-management role and tenure. Not exactly scientific. Gallup consultants say the good news is that most organizations have the management talent they need inside their companies, and the right assessment system can find it.

Top photo: Quartz

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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