The Most Productive Meetings Have A Certain Number of Attendees

By: Lauren Mineau

The old saying “too many cooks in the kitchen” applies to more than just too many hands trying to frost the same cake. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with too many minds, you probably know this to be true.

Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, reviewed research on group size and found the most productive meetings have only five to eight people. He found there is a tipping point after the ninth person joins where the conversation starts to be unproductive and not enough people have a chance to share.

Sutton cited many studies, specifically one by Harvard researcher J. Richard Hackman, and concluded that no work team should have more than 10 members, with the ideal number being six. Frictions, performance issues and lack of progress increase as the team size grows, he found.

Team members can start to feel less confident to share ideas or participate in meetings if they are overwhelmed by the group size. Researchers also found that when a meeting is too big, the important work is often done before or after by a smaller group anyway and those not directly involved may think, “Why am I even here?”

This can create a vicious cycle in the workplace that can leave team members dreading meetings and hesitant to speak up. When smaller groups are considered, more time is allotted to listen to each team member and meaningful discussion likely will ensue.

So what can you do?

If you decide to make the change, let everyone know. If someone was regularly invited to a weekly meeting and you decide conferring with them elsewhere is wiser, be honest. You don’t want them to think they’re being excluded maliciously. They’ll likely be happy for the time back and to talk in smaller groups later on.

It may also take some time to figure out the length of time and amount of people to invite — it’s going to be a trial and error process.

When making the invite list, consider who is most knowledgeable about the topic at hand, , who would be impacted by the changes and who can learn from being there. Consider inviting tech staff or finance representatives if a project would require changes of that sort, their presence may offer insight on if an idea is possible at all.

These practices can be effective in workplaces both large and small. Sutton noted two examples of this. At Pulse News, a news aggregation app, team members found that communication was lacking and misunderstandings were frequent after the startup grew from three founders to eight employees total. Even though this small company has few team members, they saw the benefit of conferring in small groups often and updating the other groups just as often.

He noted another study about a larger workplace: a hospital emergency room. The Harvard Business School study by Melissa Valentine and Amy Edmondson found that when the 30 doctors each gave directions without knowing another doctor had already given someone tasks, confusion ensued. In fact, it created such tension that people started to feel uncomfortable asking for guidance. So, they split into “pods” and found that patient information flowed smoother and working relationships improved greatly. Patient experience also improved, the study noted.

Team meetings are a crucial part of the modern workplace. But working to find a balance where everyone is heard and comfortable to share ideas and concerns is important. It may take time to find what works for you and your employees, but once you do, expect smoother sailing.

More on Sutton’s research here.