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The More People You Have, The Less Effective You Are

Effective communication is the cornerstone of successful teamwork, leadership, and personal relationships. As a leader, this became clear to me more than 20 years ago while managing a large healthcare facility, where the nuances of both verbal and non-verbal communication profoundly impacted our efficiency in carrying out daily tasks. Fred Brooks, in his ground-breaking work "The Mythical Man-Month," introduced Brooks' Law, proving how adding more people to a project delays its progress. Despite a normal reaction to add more people to help a project get back on track, this principle emphasizes how increasing team size increases lines of communication, creating complexity and additional delays.



In 1999, when I was leading a large clinical team, I noticed something unexpected: on days we were short-staffed, our efficiency soared. Instead of struggling, our nurses banded together impressively, completing work efficiently and doing so with a targeted focus on providing for their patients and supporting their colleagues. It was a stark contrast to the days when we were over-staffed. On those days, tensions ran high, mistakes were more frequent, and irritations among team members increased. More importantly, these days created a palpable tension among the team, which could be felt by our patients.


On those over-staffed days, I observed more staff taking breaks, seemingly as a measure of self-preservation, ensuring they didn't do more work than the next person. This mirroring behavior, where everyone did less to even out the workload, led to neglect and/or mistakes. Additionally, the increase in socializing and intentional work avoidance meant our usual workday stretched on needlessly, leading to overtime and costing our clinic needlessly. This pattern taught me a lot about the right balance in team size and the importance of managing our workload efficiently.


This observation led me to an unofficial scientific conclusion...'The More People you Have, the Less Effective you Are!' I learned in order to get the best from my team, I needed to operate our facility at a constant 90% to 120% work capacity. I found this balanced workload minimized negative team dynamics. When staffing was more than we needed for a day, I found awarding time off not only was a great motivator but also mitigated the negative impacts of having too many staff.


Brooks' Law highlights a crucial point—increasing team size can lead to significant communication barriers that slow down processes. It's important to remember that more than 55% of our communication is non-verbal, emphasizing the profound impact our actions have on others. Non-verbal cues such as walking away, avoidance, and visible frustration are powerful signals that can severely disrupt efficiency and complicate workflows. This negativity among colleagues not only leads to distractions and posturing but also entangles processes further. As Brooks' Law points out, the complexity added by more communication channels isn't just about verbal exchanges; non-verbal communication plays an equally vital role in creating chaos and confusion within a team. Recognizing this can help us manage team dynamics more effectively to maintain productivity and harmony.


This concept extends naturally to leadership and decision-making practices, reminding us of the proverbial "too many cooks in the kitchen." Each additional member on a team is expected to contribute, necessitating involvement and additional communication. Most of us know how challenging it can be to coordinate a call with one colleague, much less finding a mutually available time across a group of 6 or 7. This can become a logistical nightmare—potentially wasting days just to align calendars.


In conclusion, while greater communication efforts can have an infinite bearing on the operations and effectiveness of a team in healthcare, the weight of our non-verbal communication can speak volumes in terms of cohesiveness, compassion, and well-being. Recognizing and applying the lessons of Brooks' Law, especially as it relates to non-verbal communication, helps us cultivate teams that are efficient, responsive, and sustainable, rather than bigger, inefficient, and unhappy. Especially in healthcare, the true power of communication spans across that which is spoken and heard, and that which is unspoken and felt—a healthcare provider's true superpower!


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