Recently a question arose regarding leading small group team processes being different from managing large-scale change and how to identify leadership traits common and separate to leading small and large change. It is my position that no leadership principle or style requires changing simply because of the team size. The principles remain the same, the application remains the same, and the leader who is most effective at understanding this dynamic in leadership will survive and thrive during organizational change.
The most glaring difference between small and large teams, remains collaboration as detailed by Mueller (2012). In large groups, Mueller (2012) contends that productive relationships are not created and collaboration suffers. In smaller groups, the reverse is found and the productivity of each member increases substantially. Leading small or large groups hinge upon this principle that individual productivity increases as team size shrinks. With more production coming from every member, the quality and quantity of work, theoretically, should increase. Mueller’s (2012) research bears an important note here:
“… [C]oordination losses and motivation losses provide an incomplete story in explaining why individuals in larger teams perform worse. … relational losses play an important role in explaining why individuals experience performance losses in larger teams. … the optimal team size may be completely dependent upon the exact nature of the group task which may have as many variations as there are teams [p 122].”
Mueller (2012) concludes with a call to improve management as the deciding factor over team size. This conclusion confirms that size does not matter, leadership does.
A VP of Development for a wood manufacturing organization provided some concrete examples of the principle of leadership overcoming team demographics, size, and geographic disparity. Part of the leadership tools exemplified was the principle of One. The principle of One is defined as helping those you come in contact with feel as if they are the single most important factor in your success. As a leader, helping those on the team feel their importance to the team is crucial and makes the difference in team dynamics. Regardless of the size of the team, taskings or assignments for the team, or geographic distance in the team, being able to see big picture, but aid in the development of One, spells success. The VP of Development practiced this principle, trained others in this principle, and shared success with others. When failures occurred, singling out individual team members did not occur, and the VP never let corporate politics interfere with team dynamics.
The second crucial tool in a leadership toolbox is the Umbrella principle. A leader’s job is to help their team understand what occurs outside the umbrella and protect them from the consequences. Those under the leader’s umbrella can and should depend upon their leader’s protection and remain shielded, and free from distractions that hamper productivity. With these two principles of leadership, the One principle and the Umbrella principle, the leader can successfully lead teams of any size, shape, and geographic combination.
Important to note, size of the team does not change the impact or reduce the need for both the Umbrella Principle and the Principle of One in leadership. These two common and related principles distinguish the teams that succeed almost naturally from the teams that seem doomed to fail regardless of resource expenditure. Case in point, during a contract assignment in a call center, two teams of customer service reps exemplified the need for these two principles. Team A had a new leader, young, newly promoted, and full of fire to gain another promotion. Team B had a team leader, who had held the position for a long time, was well seasoned in leadership, and employed these two principles to the disgust of the higher call center leaders. Without being a team member of each team, one would never have known or understood the core underlying principles driving each team leader. Team A’s leader was a manager first, last, and foremost micromanaging each person, every task, and killing team member morale with too many reports, too much to take in, and hovering at every possible turn. Team B’s leader knew how hard the job was, employed the Umbrella and One principles, encouraged focus upon the singular task at hand, not multi-tasking, and delivered upon the customer service promise of the organization. Team B enjoyed immense success in meeting every single matrix measured in the call center. Team A enjoyed employee churn three times that of the entire call center. In fact new team members were told, “This is the team you get sent to, to kill your career,” and the unofficial motto of the team was “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” In fact, Dante had another reference as well; assigned as a member of the team meant being assigned into the “13th circle of hell.” Team B was more prepared to handle the constant organizational change of merging, performing during change, and remaining emotionally content during organizational upheaval. Team A, failed miserably to perform and still the manager eventually was promoted, after laying the blame fully upon the shoulders of the team members.
Both teams in this discussion went from 7 team members to 20 team members, and back to 12 team members, while I was consulting. Both teams had team members with ADA and FMLA concerns. Both teams were in an organization undergoing a merger, dramatic shift in organizational culture, and had to meet the same measurement goals. It is my opinion, based upon experience, that leading small (7-15 people) teams through change employs the same leadership skills and traits as leading large (16-100 people) teams. Leadership principles remain adaptable to the needs of those being led. The adaptability of leadership principles remains the keystone that builds, uplifts, and launches people upon their own journey for success.
Mueller, J. S. (2012). Why individuals in larger teams perform worse. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 117(1), 111-124. doi: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2011.08.004
© 2015 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved