Like a biological cell, a team that grow too big will divide it self
Most of us remember being part of a small tight team. Everyone knew and trusted one another and everyone gave their all for the team. Maybe memory romanticizes a bit but there is something to it. Small teams have a special energy. But as the team grows bigger something happens. All of a sudden the feeling of being part of the team is not nearly as intimate. Some of the commitment disappears and the team members start putting themselves before the team. On the more objective and measurable side decrease in productivity, increasing absenteeism and much less flattering satisfaction scores are just some of the frequent developments occurring when a small team grows bigger.
Why can’t it stay the same? Everyone wants it to, so something must be going wrong. Depending on who we ask we get different answers to the question why.
- Managers often experience that the employees lose their commitment. That they start pointing at the problems and caring less about finding the solutions.
- On the other side most employees see the management become distracted – they stay in their offices and seem distant when they finally set foot among the employees.
- We even find similar developments among different functions. The people operations note that the commercial guys are not whom they used to be. They have become too preoccupied with wrapping the product and focus less on the actual content.
All of these experiences can easily be based on factual developments – they probably are. But why do they happen every time a small team grows bigger when everyone wants them not to?
Well the answer is probably in the self perpetuating perception of the team. As a team grows bigger it feels a little bit less like a team and we start articulating it in a slightly different way. At some point individuals that are a part of the team are suddenly perceived as a part of another team. The go from being one of Us to being one of Them. Before we look into the reasons for this, let us explore how the mechanism works.
Imagine a football player giving a few comments to a reporter after a match. Note the use of the terms We and They. The term We relate to the player’s own team while They relate to the opponents. Let’s say that the player’s team lost the match and that the player – a forward – is dissatisfied with the team’s defensive efforts and the performance of the defenders. Even though the player had no part in the defensive failure he would comment that “We did a poor job in the defense” Imagine how much frustration would be required for the player to change his comments into “They did not perform well in the defense”. Quite a lot. In fact, when a player starts referring to teammates as They he sounds like a soon to be ex-teammate.
When we belong to a group or a team we identify ourselves with that group or team and the other members in it. The membership helps us understand and explain who we are – one of the most important questions to be answered in life. To an even greater extent we use references to “Them” to understand what and who we are NOT. That is often an easier and more tangible way of defining ourselves.
So we need We and They in order to build and maintain our own identity. There is a limit though, to how many individuals we can include in the We-group. There is no accurate number, but 5-20 people can typically fit in our understanding of a group or a team before we need the to subdivide the group into more manageable-sized sub groups.
The subdivision will initially happen through articulation rather than in practical terms. The only difference between to sub-groups at this stage is often how people refer to them. This discursive (only in articulation) division is later reinforced with more tangible separations like different cafeteria seats at first and different team leaders later on. Such division brings to mind the divisions of cells in a biological organism and the reference is not far off at all. Organizations grow exactly like an organism. We prefer to believe that we plan and control the growth patterns of organizations but looking closer, we realize that the story of how a certain department came to be, is merely a post-rationalization.
Nothing can stop this division into sub-groups as an organization grows. But the effect can be softened and the barriers between the sub-groups can be reduced with the same means that initiated the division in the first place – words. This is accomplished by leaders who are skilled in managing their articulation and maintaining the We-sensation in the organization and who are careful to counter the reinforcements of the group barriers. These leaders can hold on to the intimate sense of belonging and preserve both the energy and performance of the small team.
As long as the group is tight we refer to its members as We and Us. And as long as we refer to our group at We and Us, the group will feel tighter. There is no separating these two facts. They are each others reflections. The articulation, however, can be manipulated and so the entire feeling and perception of the group can be influenced to some extent.
Words are powerful. Not just the big ones. Actually everyone sees them coming. Use phrases like fantastic or scandalous and your audience will filter them away as a part of their carefully built advertising defense systems. The really powerful words are the little ones that slip under the radar.
Just by referring to you, dear reader, and myself as We throughout this post, you and I, have become members of the same team. We have a relation – or at least the language in the post tells us that we do and our minds often accept that proposal without objections.
Words cannot change facts, but they bend perceptions every second of every day.Facts are often results of decisions and decisions are shaped by perceptions. That means that much of tomorrow’s facts are decided by today’s perceptions.