How many people can you be close to?

November 3rd, 2011 by Douglas McEncroe · 2 Comments · Leadership

A while ago I read an interesting book by Robin Dunbar in which he postulates a maximum number of people with whom one can maintain a stable relationship. Dunbar’s number put’s that figure at around 150.

According to Dunbar human beings are physiologically limited to this amount of relationships, no matter if we are talking about people living in New York City or some mining town in Western Australia.

Be choosey

I started thinking about the implications of this for managers trying to manager their careers or exercise their leadership in an effective way. With my coachees I often encourage them to make an influence map, to basically set out on a large piece of paper, in the form of a map, all those people it would be interesting to exercise some influence over so that they could in some way obtain their collaboration. It is very important to be clear about this; who are the key people for me? Once I am conscious of who they are, I will then need to develop my relationship with them. This relationship will need to be one of give and take for if I want somebody’s collaboration I will also need to be collaborative with them. What is interesting about Dunbar’s number is that it reminds us that we need to be choosey. Already out of work I have my family and my best friends, and if we want life to be meaningful we need to make sure that first of all I am spending enough time with them, but after these people, who do I want to get closer to?

Some ideas for applying Dunbar’s rule at work

  • Make a map of all the people who could be important to you.
  • Approach them in a natural way.
  • If there is absolutely zero chemistry or their values are diametrically opposed to yours, dump them.
  • With all the others, get to know them better, understand their problems and their dreams.
  • Offer to help them when you can.

There is a limit to your time, Dunbar helps us see that there is also a limit to the number of meaningful relationships that we can have, be selective, but act now!

How to you manage your relationships at work?


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Michael Hollingdale

    A simple concept about influence, a powerful idea about relationship . I like the practical step of making a map you have recommended Doug. I will try it!

    • Douglas McEncroe

      Thanks Michael, nice to have you in the blog. I have been working in Spanish for a long time but the blog in English is farily new. I am glad you like the idea of a map.

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