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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

Does (Team) Size Matter (for Trust)?

In this article, I will talk about why teams and teamwork are so important, why is trust important to the team and to successful teamwork, how is trust correlated to the size of the team. I will close with what is the ideal team size.

The Importance of Teams and Teamwork

Teams and teamwork are often critical to the success of the company. First, they are important to be able to bounce ideas off each other. You must be able to suggest an idea and have another person on your team tell you what is wrong with it what how can it be better. Teamwork is also important for productivity. Let us say that it takes you 10 seconds to lift 100 pounds. How long do you think it will take you to lift 200 pounds? Well, it is not going to be 20 seconds, because you cannot lift 200 pounds at all. I know that I cannot. So, you must have more than just one person to be able to lift those 200 pounds. Furthermore, imagine what would happen if you're part of a team, but every member of the team feels the need to watch over their shoulders to see what the other team members are doing, and to monitor what they're doing. This goes against the whole idea of professionalism and specialization when every member of the team specializes in one thing. What I found in my own research is that what makes a team the most creative, productive, and effective is constructive disagreement. It is the ability to argue over things without letting it become personal and irrational. The alternatives to constructive disagreement would be a destructive disagreement, where everything becomes personal, or avoiding disagreement altogether or the politically correct agreement, where we have the meeting before the meeting, the meeting after the meeting, just not the meeting during the meeting. In my research I found that the correlation between positive team dynamics and constructive disagreement and creativity was 42.5%.

Trust and Teamwork

Research showed that projects performance would improve 45% When there is higher level of trust within the team. In one of my surveys, I found that when you have a low trust environment, people are 10 times more likely to state that they think that disagreement is unproductive, that they do not feel comfortable disagreeing, or that they avoid the disagreement altogether, compared to teams that have a high level of trust. I found three elements required to be able to hold constructive disagreement: vulnerability (willingness to suggest stupid ideas and to ask stupid questions), the willingness to give direct, unfiltered, unsweetened feedback to another person about their ideas), and the receptivity to feedback in general. Once again, I found that in a high trust environment you are 240% more willing to be vulnerable, 106% more willing to give feedback, and 76% more receptive to that feedback. And once again, if you are willing to be vulnerable give feedback and be receptive to feedback, then you are going to be so much more successful in holding a constructive disagreement, which leads directly to productivity, creativity, efficiency, and effectiveness.

In one of my surveys, I found that 18.3% of the respondents did not have a single person that they could trust in their organization. In companies with more than 100 employees, 14.4% (one in seven) said that they did not have a single person that they could trust, and in companies with more than 1,000 employees that number was smaller, but still 9.6%. Think about that. One in 10 people in a company with more than 1,000 employees said that they do not have a single person that they can trust.

Does Team Size Matter for Trust?

This brings me to the age-old question. Does size matter? Well, it does when it comes to the relationship between trust and team size. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, correlated the ratio between the volume of the neocortex to the volume of the rest of the brain in different species to the size of their social group, to the extent that he could estimate it. He found that humans have about 150 people that he called casual friends. More accurately, 147.8, and to stay within 95% of confidence that range was between 100 to 231. When you start thinking about your friends, there's kind of a hierarchy. How many friends do you have on Facebook right now? Do you call them friends? How many of them can you trust? How much can you trust all your Facebook friends? Dunbar claimed that you have on average about 1,500 people whom you can put a name to their faces. There are 500 People who he would describe as acquaintances, people that you know more than just putting a name to a face. 150 of those are casual friends. Those are people that you meet every now and then. Start thinking about your own network and find who those 150 are. He referred to 50 of them as close friends. People that you can rely on, or trust more than the others. He referred to 15 as sympathy friends. Finally, five are what he referred to as close support. Those could be your immediate family, your closest friends, people who you can trust and rely on for the most important and critical things to you. You may have more than those 1,500 hundred friends on Facebook or LinkedIn, but such that you will not even be able to put names to their faces. Elite military units operate in small teams of 4 or 5. A military division would have about 1,500 soldiers. A battalion would be about 500 soldiers, a company would have 150, a platoon would have 50, a squad would have 15, and the team would have just about five. For the book of trust, I interviewed a former Navy SEAL, Floyd McClendon, who told me about missions that he participated in, and it was always part of a small team of four or five soldiers who trusted each other at the highest level possible.

The level of trust that you have in a team depends on how big the team is. It is actually how small the team is. There are three reasons for that. One is because the amount of trust that you have is limited. And if it is limited then the bigger the team is, the less level of trust that you will distribute to every single member of the team. The second reason is that you have less exposure to each member of the team. If you are a member of a team with 50 members, how much exposure do you get to each individual team member? You are limited in how much time and intimacy you can dedicate to each member of the team. The larger the team size is, the less time you can spend and the less intimate you can be with every member of the team. The third reason is because there is a higher probability of having an untrustworthy member in the team. Imagine yourself being part of a team that is made of just you and one other person that you trust very much. How vulnerable are you willing to be with that person? A lot, right? But what if there are four members in that team? You trust two of them a lot, but you do not trust the last one very much. How vulnerable are you willing to be with that entire team? Your level of vulnerability, your willingness to give feedback, and your receptivity to feedback depends on the lowest level of trust you have in any single member of the team. Just like a chain is as strong as its weakest link. So, the bigger the team, the higher the probability that you are going to have a member in the team that you do not trust.

The Ideal Team Size

What is the ideal team size? First, it depends on what the team is supposed to do as a team. As a result of that, it depends on the level of trust that you must have in the team to achieve that goal. If this team is involved in something that does not have high risk and it does not require a high level of trust, then a large team would be fine. But, when you have a team that faces a high level of risk, possibly because of a high level of fear, you must have a high level of trust to compensate for that fear, and you are going to need a smaller team. However, the team can be too small, too. If the team is too small, it is not going to be effective, creative, or productive, because you will not benefit from having multiple ideas, you will not benefit from having multiple people trying to lift the weight that the team is charged with. If the team is too big, then you are not going to have enough trust, there would be not enough “airtime” for every member to express themselves, and you are going to split the trust among different members of the team.

I started reviewing articles about the ideal team size of the team. Oddly enough, none of them considered trust as a determining factor. The common wisdom showed numbers between five and 12. One article stated that the best number is 4.6, which is not really feasible. With everything I described, and my personal experience, suggest that the size for high trust, high performance team would be five.

What is the task is bigger and five people would not be enough? In this case, you must break the team into teams of five, and the tasks that you allocate to every team should be one that is appropriate to that size of team.

But having the right size of the team is not enough. You must make sure that you have all the elements that will contribute to building trust in that team. More on that in later episodes of this podcast. Finally, even if you have all the elements, you still need to make sure that you spend time on building trust in that team through trust-building activities.

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