Size Does Matter Especially for Teams and Tribes

I am frequently asked about the optimal size for a team. Like many leadership and team issues the answer is “it depends.” We can, however, look at some of the parameters regarding team size and gain a bit more awareness of the pertinent issues which will help us to develop higher performing teams.

Ache Hunting

For starters, let’s look at the earliest teams—foraging or raiding parties. Anthropologists have studied primitive tribes with an understanding that their behavior is most likely indicative of Paleolithic, that is pre-agricultural human behavior, and therefore a natural or instinctive team size.

The Dani tribes of western New Guinea gather hunting and raiding parties of 12-50 people whereas the Aché in Paraguay forage in groups of 6-42, with an average of 18. Other anthropologists have recorded local groups of about 25 people, although the group size may be limited by the availability of nearby food. On a larger scale, it is felt that full tribes, alliances, or coalitions consisted of approximately 500 individuals. To me, this feels like the largest size group one can have an immediate influence on.

Based upon research on team size, I feel that four major factors are in play:

  • Focus
  • Process losses
  • Communication
  • Diversity of viewpoints, knowledge, skills, and abilities

Small teams are able to focus well on very specific tasks. As the team’s scope or goals increase in number the team may need to increase in size. A small team requires very little infrastructure, communicates easily, is generally very flexible, and can adapt to new information quickly.

A larger team requires more structured processes, creating what we call process losses, taking time away from task work. All teams must find a comfortable balance between time spent on tasks and time spent on processes.

Think of communication channels as the wiring or nervous system for the team. As team size increases these channels and processes must be formalized to ensure all team members have access to information. Many tools are available today for the storage and sharing of team documents.

Diversity is an important factor, especially in groups requiring innovation. I’m not talking about gender and cultural diversity here, but more importantly diversity of viewpoints, knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). At one extreme, if everyone on the team has the same KSAs, then there is no need for a team except to add more bodies to complete the same task. At the other extreme, if the KSAs and viewpoints of the team members are so radically different they may be unable to communicate and understand each other’s ideas. A balance is important here. A team should be composed of individuals who each bring some unique value to the table that may enhance or build upon others’ ideas. Some studies have shown that larger groups will generate more ideas in creative settings although there will certainly be a point at which diminishing returns begin.

As you build your team, as always, begin with your goals and determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities you will need. Then make an estimate of the number of people the tasks will require and where the people will be located. This will determine the types of communication channels you will need to put into place. Determine the stages of your project and the processes you will need, and how much time you wish to devote to agreeing on and creating the processes. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate these decisions along the way and make adjustments as appropriate.


  • Natural team size ranges from about six to 50
  • Small teams are likely required to focus on very specific tasks
  • Determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities required, and then the number of team members
  • Allow the team to create the communication channels they feel are needed
  • Become aware of the amount of time spent on team processes vs. task and adjust as appropriate

Keywords: leadership, I/O psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, team size, team diversity, communication, process


  • Bales, R. F. (1953). The equilibrium process in small groups. In T. Parson, R. F. Bales, & E. A. Shils (Eds.), Working Papers in the Theory of Action (pp. 111-161). Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Birdsell, J. B. (1968). Some predictions for the Pleistocene based on equilibrium systems among recent hunter-gatherers. In R. B. Lee & I. DeVore (Eds.), Man the Hunter. New York: Aldine.
  • Dennis, A. R., & Wixom, B. H. (2002). Investigating the Moderators of the Group Support Systems Use with Meta-Analysis. Journal of Management Information Systems, 18(3), 235–257.
  • Gallupe, R. B., Dennis, A. R., Cooper, W. H., Valacich, J. S., Bastianutti, L. M., & Nunamaker, J. F., Jr. (1992). Electronic brainstorming and group size. Academy of Management Journal, 35(2), 350-369.
  • Heider, K. G. (1970). The Dugum Dani. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.
  • Hill, K., Hawkes, K., Hurtado, A. M., & Kaplan, H. (1984). Seasonal variance in the diet of Ache hunter-gatherers in eastern Paraguay. Human Ecology, 12(2), 101-135.
  • HĂĽlsheger, U. R., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2009). Team-level predictors of innovation at work: A comprehensive meta-analysis spanning three decades of research. Journal of Applied Pscyhology, 94(5), 1128-1145.
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An Open Letter: The Choice is Yours

I’ve gotten a few questions over the week on last week’s blog post and how to bring traumatic issues to closure and move forward. As I was driving one afternoon I began to imagine myself as a plant manager for a Japanese owned factory in China. Some of these factories have been shuttered due to the protests over the Diaoyudao islands in the East China Sea.

Senkaku Islands

The relationship between Japan and China has many dark moments. Most recently, between 1931 and 1945 Japan carried out barbarous attacks in China. While one could argue that several generations have passed since then, the trauma and losses are not easily forgotten.

I drafted a statement and have worked with Nancy Wiser of Wiser Strategies who advises clients on how to handle crises, to craft a message that would help in such a time of crisis. Here is the statement I would make…

“We understand the concern the citizens of China have over the islands between Japan and China and we understand the history between our two countries. We regret what our ancestors have done in China and unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about the past except to acknowledge it and express our regret for it.

“Beyond that, there is nothing you can do about that, there is nothing I can do about it. We can only move forward.

“We respect all of you as citizens of China and citizens of the world. We would like to continue to work with you. We would like to move forward. We would like to put the past behind us.

“You and I cannot control what our governments do. While we can vote and express ourselves peacefully in the streets as you have done, we cannot absolutely control our governments.

“I would like us to focus on moving forward. What can we do in this city today, at this factory to move forward? You can make a choice, we in our company can make a choice. Do you wish to prosper together? We are in business together. We have a factory here and would like for all of us to prosper.

“Every day that we are closed you lose money and we lose money. If you would like to work together to move forward, to create jobs, to help build a lifestyle that you would like and that we would like, then let us figure out how to work together peacefully.

“In this moment the choice is yours. Again, we respect each and every one of you as citizens of the world. We ask that you come together with us to build a prosperous business. The choice is yours and we sincerely hope that you will choose to move forward with us. Thank you.”

Keywords: leadership, trauma, grief, protests, riots, Senkaku islands, Diaoyudao islands

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Finding a Balance in Your Leadership

Last week I attended the Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology (SIOP) conference, my favorite. For me, the resonant theme was achieving a balance—in many areas. It was particularly timely given my involvement with a client wrestling with a team of extraordinarily talented individuals who have difficulty working together.

I want to focus on three qualities in leaders which may be assets or liabilities, depending on how they are utilized and how well they fit the situation. These three qualities are strengths, openness, and mental ability.

Curvilinear Performance

Much has been written about the benefits of specific strengths in leadership. Some work has carried this research further, and revealed how often strengths become liabilities. Assertive leaders can cross the line to domineering. Technically knowledgeable leaders can become micro-managers.

The key here is to understand how your leaders are utilizing their strengths. Leverage these strengths but make sure they are held in balance with contrasting characteristics such as good listening skills and openness.

Which brings me to the next quality—openness. While I don’t have statistical evidence, I frequently hear executives praise leaders for their decisiveness and ability to bring issues to closure. This decisiveness is often accompanied with a low amount of openness, a factor of the Big Five, or Five Factor Model of personality.

We can easily imagine situations where a decisive leader, one with low openness may be good at making decisions but less effective when it comes to gathering information in order to make a well-informed and comprehensive decision.

We also must look at the specific task at hand. For example, the leader of a task force exploring future strategies must be open to new ideas and thoughts, i.e. have a high degree of openness. On the other hand, a group working to complete a long-term project requires a leader converging on solutions and closing the project down. These may require a low amount of openness. Here we can see situations where there may be an optimal amount of openness for each job.

Similarly, consider the leader’s level of intelligence and the relationship to their performance. We expect that leaders with low levels of intelligence will have lower performance than those of higher intelligence, and research bears that out. Interestingly enough, once a certain level of intelligence is reached, performance begins to decline with increasing intelligence.

While we can easily imagine the difficulties with a leader who is not too bright, it may be difficult to understand how too much intelligence becomes detrimental. Consider for a moment a brilliant executive with a high business acumen. While he may be good at business analysis and strategy, imagine he is unable to communicate this strategy and motivate his team to implement it. Illuminated in this fashion, his brilliance seems doomed to failure.

So it may be good to consider your own leadership style. Do you have strengths you are leaning on and therefore possibly overusing? How might you balance these strengths in order to move from being a good leader to a superior one?


  • When reviewing required leader characteristics for a job, consider the ramifications if a leader goes overboard on those characteristics.
  • When evaluating a leader, consider the leader’s strengths and the consequences if he or she overusing this strength.

Keyword: leadership, balance, strengths


  • Ghiselli, E. E. (1963). Intelligence and managerial success. Psychological Reports, 12, 898.
  • Kaiser, R., & Hogan, J. (2011). Personality, leader behavior, and overdoing it. Consulting Psychology Journal, 63(4), 219-242.
  • Kaiser, R. B., & Hogan, J. (2012) Personality, leader behavior, and overdoing it: Empirical links. In R. B. Kaiser (Chair), Theory-driven, personality-based leadership development. Symposium conducted at the meeting of Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology 2010, San Diego, CA, USA.
  • Kaiser, R. B., & Overfield, D. V. (2010) Strengths, Strengths Overused, and Lopsided Leadership. In R. B. Kaiser (Chair), The trouble with the strengths fad. Symposium conducted at the meeting of Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology 2010, Atlanta, GA, USA.
  • Kaplan, R. E., & Kaiser, R. B. (2009). Stop overdoing your strengths. Harvard Business Review, 87(2), 100-103.
  • Sharer, K. (2012). Interview by Thomas Fleming : Why I’m a listener: Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer. McKinsey Quarterly.
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Are the Mics on? What to Communicate

On March 26, 2012, US President Barack Obama was in South Korea and met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. As they were preparing to give remarks to reporters President Obama leaned over to President Medvedev and stated that he would “have more flexibility” in missile defense negotiations after his election.

This blunder is reminiscent of an off-the-cuff declaration by President Ronald Reagan on August 11, 1984 prior to his weekly radio address. Reagan announced, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

These comments bring to mind the issue of what to communicate to your team. As a leader you may frequently undertake exercises or explorations with radical negative team impacts. Since these exercises often have a very small chance of being executed and a release of an incomplete plan can install fear into team members, it is important that they stay within a small group of colleagues. While this may smack of clandestine and unsavory business dealings, it is the smart thing to do.

If you are negotiating with an external party this complicates matters further. You do not want to tip your hand to the other party, inadvertently providing them with an advantage. Negotiations can sometimes involve multiple individuals with specific roles, including “good cop/bad cop” duties, the technocrats, the diplomats, and so on. To share such details with your team is both unnecessary and a waste of time and energy.

When considering how much information to share broadly with your team, a litmus test I use is to consider:

  • Likelihood that the scenario will play out
  • Ramifications on the psyche of individual performers
  • Effect of a transmission of partial information or information taken out of context to other groups
  • The value of your team having the information vs. not having the information.

Whatever information you do share with your team, assume that it will be spread widely. I often chuckle at the comment, “Don’t tell anyone, but…” If everyone follows this common policy then everyone ends up knowing the information.

On a related note, I routinely have leaders confide to me that team members are talking behind their backs. Expect that. Accept the fact that everyone is talking about everyone and forget it. Move on to more important issues. People share thoughts and experiences to expand their knowledge and to attempt to bring certainty to uncertain situations. This is why rumors start.

As humans, we abhor uncertainty. Rumors are an effort to find certainty in uncertain circumstances. It is best to deal with rumors using frequent, clear, honest communication. In these communications it is acceptable and reasonable to say that you cannot divulge all information. A good example is potential layoffs. If rumors begin you may need to state that layoffs are being explored but that they are a last resort. You should also state what actions are being taken in order to avoid such an action.

Here’s a parting thought on what to communicate… Think about what you would tell an eight year old child of yours about a possible negative event. On one hand you want to prepare the child, on the other you don’t want to instill him or her with anxiety or fear. So remain thoughtful and diligent about what and how you communicate.


  • Communicate only what is valuable and necessary for your team
  • Assess the ramifications of what you are planning to share
  • It’s acceptable to state that you can’t share everything at the moment but that you will provide updates as more information becomes certain

Keywords: leadership, communication, rumor, negotiation


  • Allport, F. H. (1924). Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • DiFonzo, N., & Bordia, P. (2006). Rumor psychology: Social and organizational approaches. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Hersey, P., Blanchard, K. H., & Johnson, D. E. (1993). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (6th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Jarvenpaa, S. L., & Leidner, D. E. (1998). Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(4). Retrieved from
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Is Your Leadership Energy in Balance?

One of the angles from which I approach leadership and team development is that of energy. Viewing all interactions with others in an energetic sense is merely one of many views available. It is similar to wearing polarized sunglasses. When wearing glasses with polarized lenses, unless you turn your head at the right angle you cannot always see the electronic display on some instruments.

In an analogous fashion, if you work to attune your awareness you can begin to follow the flow of energy between you and your team members. I believe that it is important to balance the flow of energy in both directions—away from you and toward you.

It is clearly important that, as a leader, you are able to communicate your vision and provide guidance. This is energy flowing away from you. Similarly, it is important for you to listen and gather information and ideas from your team members as well as your superiors. This is energy flowing toward you.

Body language is an important part of our communication. You might consider trying to observe your body language as you interact with your team members. Do you appear open, or overbearing? Is your body language congruent with what you speak? When your body language indicates strength or force you are sending energy out, when your body appears open you are saying, in effect, that it is OK for the other person to speak and send energy your way.

Finally, where do your exchanges take place? Always in your office or a conference room? How often do you go to your team member’s desk? In general, your office will be perceived as a place of power, a place where the energy will flow from you. When you go to your team member’s office it is more a signal of energy flowing to you, although any actions on your part may thwart that flow and reverse it.

Balancing this flow of energy is difficult to maintain, particularly when leading virtual teams. As with most things, practice helps. Observe yourself as you interact with team members and superiors. After a while it will likely become second nature.

Observe energy flow:

  • During verbal exchanges
  • With team members and superiors
  • In different locations
  • With body language
  • Of information and ideas

Keywords: leadership, balance, energy, flow, trust


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This is One Impressive Cat: The Leadership of Doug Oberhelman

Caterpillar is an unlikely darling. We all know that technology is where it’s at, not heavy industry. Don’t tell that to Doug Oberhelman, CEO of Caterpillar. Under his leadership the company has thrived through the current recession.

Doug led a team during a boom cycle in 2005 that put together a strategy on how to deal with a huge downturn in sales. While extremely unpopular at the time, it turned out to be exactly the right thing to do. In November 2008 sales plummeted and the strategy was quickly executed in order to stay ahead of the downturn. This prepared Caterpillar for the next up-cycle—one that is currently underway.

Under Oberhelman’s leadership, Caterpillar recently completed the $8.8B acquisition of Bucyrus, a manufacturer of complementary heavy machinery as well as several other smaller acquisitions. Determined to make the most of this recession, he’s investing in new plants, hiring workers, bringing manufacturing back to the US where the customers are, and scratching to gain market share while others sit on hoards of cash and continue to lay workers off. This takes courage.

If you listen to Doug Oberhelman’s words and observe his actions you’ll notice something—his forward-moving energy is palpable. There’s a lot we can learn from Doug. Let’s look at his behavior:
• Focused on the customer (he visits at least one customer a week)
• Is optimistic about the market and paranoid about competitors
• Maintains a good balance between people and tasks
• Communicates, communicates, and communicates even more
• Focuses on moving forward while learning from the past

Keywords: leadership, balance, strategy, communication

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