I’m a huge sports fan and have the torture of being a Chicago one at that. Sports have a set amount of players on each team depending upon the kind of sport, but in sports we focus ourselves on only certain players on those teams. The argument is always less about the talent of the individual and more about the quantity of talent that surrounds the individual. So we think about the great sports teams of our generation, we think about what made them so successful that they’re ranked amongst the greatest of all time. We may come to the conclusion that the team certainly benefitted from that great individual but certainly couldn’t have achieved greatness without others. Not into sports? Shift to music, how many times have we seen bands lose a key member of the group and not be able to achieve the same kind of sound? How many times have we seen great bands break up due to mismanaged egos?
While the Chicago Bulls and the fall of Blue Oyster Cult (gotta have more cowbell) have little to do with student organizations, they are teams and there are some interesting theories regarding the right size and shape of teams.
There’s a great piece from the Wharton School of Business, surprisingly not written by Donald Trump, which touches exactly on the optimal size of a team. As I mentioned in the beginning, sports teams have a set amount of players on each team, whereas with student organizations we usually only have a minimum amount of students needed to exist. So with student organizations that have no limits, what exactly is the right number?
Are Larger Teams Better Than Smaller Teams?
The article describes that productive teams have an average number of 4.6 members, which is unrealistic and counterproductive to getting students involved on campus. I do think that the broader point is that smaller teams are less susceptible to inefficiency and laziness; so what does that mean for our student organizations that have large numbers of members and officers? It should mean that the onus for promoting efficiency falls on the leadership of the organization along with the advisor.
Perhaps instead of looking at it as a full organization allotment of 4.6 members, you could look at the optimal amount of officers in student organizations. At UNT, the number of officers in an organization range from 2-18; on the surface it could suggest that the organization that has 18 officers is bloated and that the organization that has 2 officers is small and not very complex. While numbers lead us to assume, the tasks of the organization tell the story.
What’s The Makeup of The Team?
Wharton School of Business Professor Jennifer S. Mueller shares that the size of the organization may not be the most important detail. “First, it’s important to ask what type of task the team will engage in,” Mueller says. It is true that some organizations definitely require more layers of leadership than others; Greek organizations and service organizations come to mind. On the other end there are organizations that are unnecessarily bloated in leadership positions; much of this comes from a desire to recognize as many peers as possible as to avoid awkward situations or an overestimate of work each officer would conduct.
Whether you’re in a job or in an organization, when individuals run out of things to do and don’t feel very involved, negativity starts to seep in. Whether it’s disdain for the organization or an increasing sense of disenfranchisement. I believe the sequence should be as follows: Assess the tasks of your organization, seek an objective opinion on the amount of officers it would take to lead those efforts, and resist the urge to increase those numbers.
Do You Want Even or Odd Numbers on Your Team?
We know that our student organization leaders are capable of being tremendous leaders and that they are also capable of creating situations that are favorable to their student organizations. We also know that at various times in a school year, student leaders could have problems maintaining high levels of productivity; could it be that there are too many barriers to success?
In a paper titled, “Team Mental Models and Team Performance” Katherine Klein observes that, “When you have two people, is that a team or a dyad? With three, you suddenly have the opportunity to have power battles, two to one. There is some notion that three is dramatically different from two, and there is some sense that even numbers may be different from odd numbers, for the same reason. My intuition is that by the time you are over eight or nine people, it is cumbersome and you will have a team that breaks down into sub-teams. Depending on the group’s task that could be a good thing or that could not be right. There is a sense that as a team gets larger, there is a tendency for social loafing, where someone gets to slide, to hide.”
I have written time and again that one of the biggest issues with student organizations is that rely too heavily on one individual. The individual(s) graduate or drop from the organization leaving it in disarray. What these organizations have in common is that they don’t have just one officer. Many of these organizations have multiple officers, but their levels of engagement could be low, or as the quote suggests they “get to slide, to hide” because the level of tasks doesn’t fit with the number of officers.
Is Competition in Your Organization a Good Thing?
One of the things I really enjoy about working with student organizations is that much of it is a learning experience. In “Team Mental Models and Team Performance” Katherine Klein also identifies an important factor for organizations. “One of the problems is the in-group, out-group problem,” he says. “Depending on how we identify ourselves, we can be part of a group or separate from a group.”
It is no secret that in all walks of life we have people that we genuinely enjoy spending time with and also people we’d rather not deal with on a regular basis. As I wrote about in a previous entry, our organizations can’t be made up completely of “drivers”; we need individuals that are tethered to the ground for balance. The problem with too many “drivers” in student organizations is that it promotes unhealthy levels of competition. I have conducted many development sessions with large student organizations that are having issues getting along and being productive. The common problem is that these organizations are made up of the perceived “haves” and “have nots” in way that they either have a leadership position or have no leadership position. The result is that cliques form and they easily forget that they’re all part of the same team.
As it was put in the article, “Teams are sometimes more siloed within a company and they think they are competing with each other instead of being incentivized to work together.” An organization that struggles with in-team competition simply needs to refocus and point back to their mission. In the end, an organization is made up of at minimum two things: people and a mission. You could argue that without people there is no mission; I would argue that without a mission you’re just a group of people.
When it comes to the much asked question of “would you rather have quantity or quality?” I believe our student organizations should answer very simply, “Can we have both?”
Lim, B., & Klein, K. (2006). Team mental models and team performance: A field study of the effects of team mental model similarity and accuracy. Journal of Organizational Behavior J. Organiz. Behav., 403-418.
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About the Author: Dan Goodwin was born and raised in Illinois. He received his Bachelors and Master’s degrees in Recreation Administration from Illinois State University. Prior to his start in the field of student affairs, Dan spent 3 years as a golf professional in the Chicago, Illinois area. Dan presently works at The University of North Texas. Prior to UNT, Dan worked at Illinois State University (2009-2011) and Tulane University (2011-2014). Dan’s professional interests lie within leadership education and development and preparing others for life after college. He loves spending time with his wife, Kristin and their beagle, Bailey. He loves all things music and most things about Chicago sports. He once ate a 5LB gummy bear. Connect with him on Twitter @NewFoundGoody.