Let’s imagine that you’re an account manager with 200 customers. If you know that 80 percent of your revenue comes from 20 percent of those customers, what do you think happens to the other 80 percent that only accounts for 20 percent of the revenue? Yep, you guessed right, not much. However, the reason not much happens with these accounts could be influenced by the biological amount of bandwidth you have for maintaining relationships.
We discussed Dunbar’s number and limitations of managing groups of people on a recent podcast. Learning about the way people process social information can potentially lead to more efficient interactions within organizations. There are limits that are challenging for us to overcome. Once you understand your limitations, you can discover the actual number of people you can effectively manage.
I understand this concept from personal experience. My first big promotion was to manage a call center in Bristol, a city in the southwest of the UK. There were about 150 people on the team. When I look back on this time, it is with fond affection. We were a tight-knit group. I knew about my team’s families and backgrounds, and what motivated them as individuals. As my career progressed, the number of people I managed grew until it reached 3,500 in all. Unfortunately, as much as I would have liked, I didn’t know everybody as I did in that call center in Bristol. It wasn’t the same type of feeling either.
A Quick Explanation of Dunbar’s number
However, this isn’t a surprise. It’s an effect of the British anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar, at Oxford University. Among other things, Dunbar studied how people and animals processed group sizes. He started off studying apes, chimps, and monkeys in their social networks. Dunbar found that there exists a remarkable similarity in the size of these social groups that were correlated with the size of a certain region of the animal’s brain. In other words, Dunbar and his researchers could predict how large a social circle would be based on the size of the animal’s brain. Then, the team could extrapolate that number out to what that social circle size would be for humans, given the size of our brain. The number was around 150, which, through verification of other studies, became known as Dunbar’s number.
When I learned about Dunbar’s number a few years ago, I thought that amount felt right. Once the number of people I managed went above that 150-160 mark, I lost touch and it changed how I led the team.
Dunbar’s research and number seem to have some roots in biology. The part of our brain designed to manage social interactions has some biological caps on it. When you force your way past that, creating teams that are much larger than 150, you’re challenging biological constraints. It could lead to suboptimal performance because you are testing your human limitations.
Dunbar says you have five people to whom you are very close. Then, most people have around 15 good friends and 50 friends. Then, from there you move out until you reach 150 meaningful contacts or Dunbar’s number. Then, there would be 500 acquaintances and 1,500 people who you can recognize.
To see the image for yourself in the BBC article, please click here.
It is important to remember that these numbers are averages. Some people have larger numbers and some smaller. However, on average, this is where most people are. Moreover, not everyone agrees with Dunbar, thinking instead the data indicates a much larger circle on average. However, Dunbar does have a lot of data gathered over the years that backs it up. Moreover, it serves as a useful framework for thinking about relationships.
Not Magic, But Time
If you want to find out what people value and spend their time on, then look at their calendars. There’s a difference between what people say and what they do. How they schedule their day tells you the truth about where they’re spending their time.
The emotional bond between people doesn’t happen magically. This research from Dunbar and others suggests that it’s a function of time. My wife spends more time cultivating friends than I do. She also spends a lot more time chatting to people she doesn’t know than I do, too. She has a larger personal social number overall because she spends more time on it than I do.
However, the concept of social relationships connecting to how you spend your time holds for business relationships, too. In my days managing teams, we found the 80/20 rule was in effect. So, in other words, 20 percent of those customers would produce 80 percent of the revenue. Unfortunately, this leads to account managers spending 80 percent of their time on 20 percent of their accounts. If you notice, that means a whole load of customers was not getting any time.
The Social Network-Dunbar Connection
Dunbar’s research extends to social media relationships, too. Recognizing that we have different tiers of relationships can also help us improve the management of our social media lives.
At its core, social media is social. These tools, like LinkedIn networking or video conferencing, or other platforms, enable you to make more connections and widen your social circles. However, the terms we use in social media imply relationships that aren’t there or that are stronger than they are in reality. Everybody that you are connected with in some way online is not a close friend. Some people have Facebook friend networks numbering in the thousands. But are these contacts actual friends? Probably not.
That is not to say that social media relationships cannot be real relationships. If you want a stronger social media presence, your willingness to engage with people one-on-one goes a long way. There is a woman on LinkedIn that takes the time to give me regular feedback, to say that she agrees or disagrees or whatever else about the things I post here. I feel connected to her as a result. If she asked for my advice, I would be more likely to respond to her than someone I’ve never met before in my life.
You might not know this, but I’ve got a little under 300,000 followers on LinkedIn. I do not know them all, but some I do. I would like to know more people, however. I would encourage any you to reach out on LinkedIn; it’s good to hear what people think or feel about things, or what you do.
So What Does This Mean to You?
Knowing our limitations is one thing, but what can you do with this information to improve your business, as well as your Customer and Employee Experience? There are a few things, including:
- Use Dunbar’s research to assess how you can spend time building relationships with people. This research has applications for business and interpersonal relationships. Consider how the pandemic has changed behavior for all of us. We are missing out on a lot of incidental interactions with our acquaintances, from chatting with co-workers at the office to discussing the latest gossip with your neighbor. We would encourage you to rededicate time to rekindle as many relationships as you can in an appropriate medium. Maybe it’s a phone chat or a weekly zoom call with a group you used to hang out with, but whatever it is, making a point to stay in touch with people and maintain that relationship is vital.
- Think about this from a leadership standpoint. Remember the number 150. If you’re creating an organization with 500 people, consider how you structure the hierarchy so that no one is in a group beyond what humans can manage.
- Control the number of accounts your team manages and how they spend their time. Remember the 80/20 rule? When 20 percent of your customers deliver 80 percent of the business, the default may be to ignore customers outside of that group. Think about where your people are spending their time and determine if it’s what you want them to do or not.
- Apply the close contacts formula to your business relationships also. The illustration of the circles in the BBC article can apply to business. Determine who your main customers are, and whether you spend enough time with those customers. Then, categorize the other relationships and assess the time you invest in those groups. Is there something you can change that would develop those relationships more?
- Spend your time and energy wisely. One of the things that we learn from Dunbar’s research is that relationships cost us something in terms of time and effort. Moreover, we have limited biological capacity for social groups. As we invest time in a relationship, we are inherently investing less time somewhere else or with other relationships. So, as with cognitive resources, our relationships are precious. Spend that time and energy wisely. Ensure you cultivate relationships that inspire and strengthen you. Make those who you spend the most time and energy on the people who are also doing you the most good and giving you the opportunity to do the most good for them in return.
We all have limitations. Our brains can only handle so much at a given time. The same goes for your employees and yourself as the manager. Be sure that you recognize this limitation, invest in the relationships that are most meaningful to you, and use it to improve your leadership and personal relationships. Moreover, set aside a little time to develop relationships that are outside your innermost circles. From a business perspective, there are opportunities there waiting for a little attention to thrive, to move inside that Dunbar number boundary, and join the 20 percent producing 80 percent of your revenue.
To hear more about this idea in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here.
Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.
Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX
Ro, Christine. “Dunbar’s number: Why we can only maintain 150 relationships.” Bbc.com. 9 October 2019. Web. 29 March 2021. < https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191001-dunbars-number-why-we-can-only-maintain-150-relationships>.