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As a leader, when to stay close to your team? Team size matters

Datum:06 december 2021
Auteur:Yingjie Yuan
As a leader, when to stay close to your team? Team size matters
As a leader, when to stay close to your team? Team size matters

Managers often struggle to find a perfect distance among followers. How close should it be? Should leaders walk around employees day-to-day for timely instructions and corrections? Or can leaders stay away from followers’ practices?

Prior research on leadership suggested that leaders place themselves in the center of employee communication. That is, teams tend to be more successful when employees can easily reach their leaders through one-to-one connections. Having leaders in the center of communication helps employees to recognize leaders’ charisma and thus better respond to leaders’ requirements and advice.

The question is, is this closeness to your employees always effective? Whereas large teams might have a strong need for leaders to regulate and supervise, many small teams, in Zappos and Google for example, function very well without involving their leaders in daily practice. So, when do teams need leaders in the center and when do not?

In a recent study on 577 employees and 75 leaders from 75 work teams, my coauthor, Daan van Knippenberg, and I found that the role of leaders in the center is more complex than it appears. Its influence depends on the size of the work unit. Specifically, we found that large teams (11 followers and above) do benefit from having leaders in the center of communication, yet smaller teams (7 and below) performed worse when leaders are too central among employees.

Why is this divide happening? Our analysis showed that when teams are small, leaders in the center tended to block lateral communication among employees and impairs team collaboration, which, sequentially, led to the lower effectiveness of these teams. Further, even after we controlled for self-management of team members, this conditional impact of central leadership remains the same.

This finding implies that the best position for leaders among employees depends on the actual size of the team. Our study gave a very practical suggestion for managers to step in employee communication when the team has more than 11 members. In such large teams, managers should create communication channels for each individual employee.

If teams have 7 or fewer members, however, leaders should avoid involving themselves too much, as it distracts employees from creating their own information flows and collaboration with each other. Instead, it makes sense to encourage employees to formulate their own communication patterns in small teams. And the teams with between 7 and 11 members? Leaders of these teams should take a situational perspective: monitor the team’s interaction, stimulate their communication, and manage when needed.

Dr. Yingjie Yuan (yingjie.yuan is Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen, with expertise on Team information processing, Creativity/Innovation, Social networks, Star Performers, and Idea Receptivity.


Yuan, Y., & Van Knippenberg, D. (2021). Leader Network Centrality and Team Performance: Team Size as Moderator and Collaboration as Mediator. Journal of Business and Psychology, 1-14.

Tags: Leadership, Teams