Better interpersonal relationships lead to more effective teams, according to recent research. That’s especially true in larger teams, in which all members may not know each other — or be comfortable going to the team leader when issues arise.
When it comes to teams, less is sometimes more.
In a recent paper, Wharton management professor Jennifer Mueller found that, while larger teams generally are more productive overall than smaller ones, members of the bigger groups were less fruitful individually than their counterparts on the smaller teams.
The research, “Why Individuals in Larger Teams Perform Worse,” was published in the August issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
“There are costs to collaborating,” says Mueller. “In larger teams, one of those costs is that people may not have the time and energy to form relationships that really help their ability to be productive.”
Mueller became interested in the issue of how team size impacted individual performance after reading through material collected from 26 corporate-design teams as part of an ongoing research project led by Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School.
Through the research group, Mueller had access to journals and questionnaires provided by the 238 people on teams tasked with developing a host of products and services, including inventing a new type of dental floss, designing a new airline ticket-purchase process and creating a cut-resistant fiber to be worn by factory workers.
The content of the journals was eye-opening, Mueller says.
“I started to recognize that employees in these larger design teams experienced incredible amounts of stress. People often said, ‘I don’t feel I can get the resources to do what they want me to do.’ One person referred to the experience as a ‘death march.’ ”
Mueller also began to see a pattern — the stress level seemed higher for members of larger teams.
“On a smaller team, people knew what resources were available and felt they could ask questions when things went wrong. The situation was more controllable,” Mueller says.
“But in these larger teams, people were lost. They didn’t know who to call for help because they didn’t know the other members well enough. Even if they did reach out, they didn’t feel the other members were as committed to helping or had the time to help.
“And they couldn’t tell their team leader,” she says, “because [it would look like] they had failed.”
The challenges of larger teams are well-studied in academic literature.
Mueller says that one meta-analysis showed that larger groups tend to perform better than small groups, but the group performance gains for every additional member are minimal because individuals in these larger groups perform worse than individuals in smaller groups.
Previous work has focused on two culprits behind this: motivation and coordination loss.
The first stems from the reality that people may not work as hard if their contribution is likely to be lost or go unrewarded, due to the size of the team. Coordination loss refers to the difficulty in getting all the disparate elements of a large team to work well together.
But Mueller suspects there is a third force at work: relational loss.
According to her paper, “Relational losses specifically involve perceptions about the extent to which teammates are likely to provide help, assistance and support in the face of struggle or difficulty.”
Mueller’s theory is that this deterioration in connections between team members increases with team size, resulting in weaker performance, on average, by individual participants.
To assess the impact of relational loss, Mueller gathered questionnaires from the 238 team members from the Harvard study throughout their product or service-development effort. The questionnaires included performance evaluations of each individual from both their peers and the team leader.
The questionnaires also probed team members on their motivation, the team’s coordination and the degree to which they felt connected to other people in the group. By creating models around that data, Mueller was able to show that the stress caused by a lack of connection to other members of the group was a key driver behind the lower performance of individuals on the larger teams.
“There was some evidence of coordination loss, but I did not see evidence of motivation loss,” Mueller says. “I saw compelling evidence for relational loss — it loomed larger than you might expect given how much emphasis is given to coordination.”
Less-than-optimal relationships make people on a team feel isolated and unsupported, Mueller says, particularly when problems surface. That anxiety can have a direct impact on a team member’s performance.
“Stress soaks up your cognitive resources and diminishes the extent to which you can hold information in your memory. That contributes to a decline in performance.”
Mueller’s findings offer important insights on how companies should be approaching team-based initiatives.
Given the complexity of product-development projects, it may be impossible to gather all of the needed expertise within a small group of people, necessitating the formation of a larger group.
But, Mueller says, finding a way to enhance the connections between members of those large teams is critical to improving their individual effectiveness.
“One thing teams could do is to have a person who has the role of troubleshooter — the one who steps in to help when stuff goes wrong.”
The troubleshooter knows what skills and resources are available to the team, and can bring the right people together to address problems.
“This role could help lubricate these relationships that don’t have the opportunity to form naturally,” Mueller says, adding that the “problem-solver” position should not be filled by the team leader because team members may be reluctant to go to the boss to discuss problems.
What about trying to foster connections between members of a large team by simply creating opportunities for people to get to know each other better?
If a team is likely to be in place for years, that sort of effort — including offsite team-building sessions — makes sense, Mueller says. But for teams that will only operate for a more limited period, those steps can simply take too long to bear fruit.
By The Wharton School
Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.