The Unexpected Costs of Collaboration

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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, individual members of the bigger groups were less fruitful 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.'”

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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 states. “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 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 getting all the disparate elements of a large team to work well together.

Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.