The 150 Person Rule and How It Affects Engagement

Renowned evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar is known for the Dunbar Rule–the notion that human beings can maintain only 150 offline and online relationships. He also claims that since emotional closeness declines by 15% due to lack of regular contact, the intimacy of these affiliations fluctuates over time.

How can we take the lesson of the Dunbar Rule and apply it to our large, faceless government bureaucracies? It is particularly applicable in my agency of 83,000 employees, some of them virtual workers who have never met their colleagues in person.

I think the message of the Dunbar Rule is smaller is better, particularly when it comes to engagement. As engagement expert David Bator points out, once an organization grows beyond 150 people, it takes more energy and effort to make sure it stays connected. At that size, a leader no longer has the luxury of stopping by each cubicle every morning or organizing All Hands Meetings to monitor the heartbeat of their organization. Essentially after employee #151, leaders start to lose their grip on an organization.

I think this is where engagement surveys come into the picture. I don’t mean the torturous Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey deployed annually by the federal government that results in little more than data dumps of impotent information that rarely transforms engagement levels.

I am talking about what Dave Weisbeck of Visier recommends as a replacement for annual engagement surveys in the form of pulse surveys. Quick-hitting, more frequent assessments that give real-time feedback in smaller more manageable quantities geared toward targeted results.

Don’t make the mistake that more social media or information technology options will keep employees more engaged and connected to each other. I think that ship has already sailed as we all drown in a high tech/low touch electronic world.

For this model to work, an organization has to have top-notch front-line leaders. These infantry soldiers know most of what is going on in the organization and reside close to the heart and soul of the operation.

The online shoe and clothing company Zappos understands the Dunbar Rule and its effect on engagement. At this innovative workplace, 400 circles, the equivalent of teams, guide engagement by: (1) creating rules for workplace interaction; (2) monitoring the quality of work; (3) deciding how people are held accountable and (4) determining distribution of tasks. No longer are senior leaders needed to get into the weeds. Micro-management goes out the back door and engagement enters the front door.

When it comes to engagement, bigger is not better. Bigger just means you are more likely to be disengaged. That is a terrible feeling no matter how many people are in your network.

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