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How Does Group Size Affect Leadership?

written by: N Nayab • edited by: Ronda Bowen • updated: 10/24/2010

Leadership is the process where one person influences the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task. Of the many factors that has an impact on leadership style and effectiveness, group size plays an important role. Read on to find out how does group size affect leadership?

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    How does group size affect leadership? The size of the group has a significant impact on both leadership style and effectiveness.

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    Impact on Leadership Style

    How Does Group Size Affect Leadership The size of the group influences the leadership styles in organizations. Participative leadership styles require the leader’s individual attention to each team member and consulting with them before taking decisions. The higher the group size, the more difficult and time consuming this becomes.

    Leaders with large groups and wide span of control adopt an autocratic style leadership out of compulsion if not out of choice, finding no other effective way to manage such a large group. Large groups are generally populated with people having comparatively lesser education, reinforcing the application of the autocratic style of leadership. Practical applications of such autocratic leadership style owing to a large group are in situations such as assembly line plant, political parties, and others.

    Again, adopting a laissez faire or servant leadership style becomes possible only in small groups. Application of the same in wide groups or where the leaders have a wide span of control might result in chaos and hold ups.

    One leadership style suitable for all group sizes is situational leadership where the leader makes decisions based on the capability of the followers and the leader, with the leader adjusting and adapts to the limitations laid out by the team members and the situation.

    Image Credit: Maxwell

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    Impact on Leadership Effectiveness

    The group size also has a significant impact on leadership effectiveness. The smaller the group size, the better the performance of the leader. Small groups place the leader’s action in close scrutiny of team members, forcing them to work better, thereby raising the standards of leaderships. Studies point to the effectiveness of a small group in dimensions such as interactions, problem solving, stability, communication, and individual involvement or participation. The notable advantages of big groups over small groups include availability of diverse skill-sets to solve most problems and reduced stress for the followers.

    Most of the characteristic traits of good leaders such as application of creativity, effective communication, interpersonal skills, and taking passionate decisions become possible better when the leader has a smaller group to manage.

    An experimental study conducted by Mana Komai and Philip J. Grossman at Department of Economics, St. Cloud State University suggests that leading by example loses its effectiveness in large groups. Leaders, being pivotal in large groups become eager to participate, whereas followers, becoming marginal in large groups tend to look for a free ride, and this demotivate leaders from leading from the front.

    Another study conducted by the University of Washington suggests a generally inverse relationship between performance and group size. The study involved fifty self contained and independent squadrons in Air Defense Command. The squadrons were divided into a larger ground control intercept containing 140 to 200 men, and early warning with 90 to 130 men per unit. Functionally both the squadrons had identical organization.

    Although the impact of group size is obvious and substantiated by research, much of the research tries to highlight the superiority or small group over big group of vice-versa, and attempts to identify an optimal group remains limited.

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    5. Slater, Philip, E. “Contrasting Correlates of Group Size." Sociometry 21(2) Jun 1958. Retrieved from