Spend more time grooming each other!

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M Moser’s Steve Gale looks at how some relationships are mechanical, while others are emotional, demanding trust and mutual obligation.

I had a recent reminder of a concept known as the Dunbar number. Named after the anthropologist, Robin Dunbar of Magdalen College, Oxford, it describes the number of people we can have meaningful relationships with, which turns out to be around 150. After studying social animals, mainly primates, to test a hypothesis that links brain size with grooming behaviour, he has credibly suggested that in humans there is a maximum size to the cluster of people we can have genuinely trusting relationships with.

This simple idea has been tested by looking at social groups of people recorded throughout history – and the number of 150 recurs time and again.

I like this because it adds fuel to the idea that there might be similar patterns and limitations in groups in the workplace, but it raises a raft of questions at the same time, many of which Robin Dunbar has talked about in the past.

For example, how can such a small number of relationships allow us to operate in the much bigger communities of cities, workplaces and universities? And do all these people need to be in the same place, or can they be dispersed geographically?

The answer is that these close groups persist, even in cities, but we find other ways to deal with people that are outside the inner circle, mainly through acceptable behaviour and manners that persuade us to act in a civilised way. We trust others to do their job, as we do ours, and these principles operate between people who don’t know each other, but the bonds are merely mechanical, without flexibility or emotional resonance.

Also, your personal relationship group may be dispersed around the world, with some close to home and others dotted around in places you used to work, study or play. This reduces the interconnected nature of a group where every member does not know every other one, and is a big difference between primitive groups and modern ones – and surely makes for reduced cohesion in society.

“Words are slippery, but a touch is worth a thousand words any day”

Almost inevitably, a handful of inner circle people will be in your workplace, and some firms exploit this idea more than others. Quite a few tech start-ups try to bond like a family, with common mealtimes, celebrations and even recreational activities. I think we all know what that looks like when it is forced a bit too far and becomes ritualised, but on the other hand it can be an unstoppable force for collaboration and team building.

An intimate group with genuine common values will create a strong identity and be likely to succeed, but the challenge is scaling up to a bigger number.

There is another framework that in my mind fits nicely with the Dunbar number – it is the Allen Curve, named after Thomas Allen of MIT, which reveals how frequency of communication in certain groups (in this case engineers) decays rapidly as the distance between people increases. This strongly implies that effective working communication between colleagues needs co-location if possible. Place them in different buildings and interaction falls away until people that should be working together become virtually excluded from their colleagues, regardless of the technical wonders available to improve connections.

These two concepts confirm the value, if it ever needed further validation, of face-to-face communication as the best way to get really good communication, and these conversations will work best if the participants are friends, or at least know each other a bit. The corollary is that mere functional interaction probably does not get the best out of people. It also demonstrates that Facebook friends are not really friends, and relegates emails and even phone calls to a lower position in the communication hierarchy.

The 150 people (or approximately 150, because this number can stretch or shrink a bit) in a social group has quite a strong definition and evolutionary purpose, but does not seem to have a name. It is obviously not a tribe, which can be a very big number, and it is not a community, which can mean any collection of people. Maybe someone should coin a label for this phenomenon as it is so important?

For me it reinforces the thesis that much sought after knowledge exchange in business, especially creative or scientific discovery business, benefits from the idea of conviviality. Closely located people communicate better as they form relationships that promote social conversations, and they lower the barrier to sharing important working knowledge and experience.

Finally, as Dunbar himself says: ‘Words are slippery, but a touch is worth a thousand words any day.’ I think that takes us straight back to primate grooming – try it.