Ever been on a team that’s too big to function properly?  Organizations often stuff teams, workgroups, and committees full of members.  Perhaps they’re hopeful that many hands will make light work.  Maybe they want to get more perspectives, skills and resources.  Or, more likely, it’s just easier to add one more seat to the table than risk the hurt feelings of leaving someone out.

Some interesting new work from researchers at the University of Queensland and University of Toronto suggests that trust may be harder to cultivate in larger teams.

The researchers had people rate the trustworthiness of hypothetical small (versus large) companies and towns.  People tended to think of smaller firms and people in smaller towns as more likely to behave in trustworthy ways.   They also had people imagine a small versus large crowd of people.  Again, people thought of people in small crowds as being more trustworthy.

The researchers also had people imagine being caught at work for a minor offense (like making recreational or personal use of a work laptop, or taking home stationery from work). They were asked to imagine being judged by a disciplinary panel that was either large or small:

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People seemed to intuit that the smaller group would be fairer, more trustworthy, and more lenient in their punishment.   The same effect was found when imagining a job application being reviewed by a small (versus large) committee:

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Job applicants thought the smaller group would be more trustworthy and would make a more favourable decision.  They felt the smaller group would be both warmer, but also more competent and capable.

The studies, of course, don’t get at real team dynamics.  They’re about our initial, gut-level associations between size and trust.  Here’s what I’d take away from this when planning work teams:

(1) Gut feelings can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If the researchers are right and there’s a deep-seated connection for people between group size and the trustworthiness of their members, this can matter.  If we enter into a new team and treat others as if they’re suspicious or ill-intentioned, it’s often reciprocated.  Distrust can spiral as people refuse to cooperate, delegate, or share information. Don’t expect that a large team, even if filled with very trustworthy individuals, will treat one another trustingly.

(2)  Aim for the “minimum-viable team size”.  Rather than starting with a laundry list of everyone who might be interested, useful or helpful, begin by asking:  What is the absolute smallest team of people who can bring what it takes to execute the task at hand?  Let this core group begin the work, and let them choose to add others as resources, skills or connections are needed.

(3) Make big teams feel small.  When working in large groups, consider breaking them into smaller subgroups, even at first, to capitalize on the mental “small=trustworthy” shortcut we seem to take.  You may also want to draw on comparisons:  Emphasize the smallness of a working group relative to the entire organization, or the smallness of a firm in relation to its competitors.  Or, simply think of size and trust as a tradeoff:  If you anticipate benefiting from a larger team, accept that more time and effort spent in initial trust-building is the price that needs to be paid.