Leading Workplace Tribes

An Executive, who had watched her organization grow from a tight-knit team of 35 to a global workforce of over 5,000 people, shared this observation: “I used to know everyone personally— without even trying. When we reached 60 people, I had to work at it. When we hit 150, forget it! I had to accept that most new hires would be strangers.”

When pushed on it, she couldn’t really identify the exact point when she realized that maintaining a personal relationship with everyone in the company was no longer possible.  But her gut said it was around the 150 employee mark.

Chances are; her gut is right.

According to evolutionary anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, there is a limit to the number of people we can maintain a social relationship with—and that number is approximately 150 people. He arrived at this number by following a variety of converging paths, including:

  • The average number of people in traditional hunter/gatherer tribes.
  • The average size of villages in the 18th century according to preserved records.
  • The size of the human brain relative to other social animals.
  • The typical number of individuals in a community of socially complex animals.

Even social media, today’s ultimate tribe-building tool, doesn’t stray far from Dunbar’s number. When Facebook checked in 2010, the average number of friends for Facebook users was between 120 and 130. This year, according to PEW Research, that number has risen to 245, but most people see only a fraction of those friends on a regular basis. While social media tools like Facebook can help us stay in touch with an ever increasing number of people, they don’t fundamentally change the reality of Dunbar’s number, which is based on the brain’s ability to process and maintain complex, multi-layered social relationships.

What Does it Mean in the Workplace?

Dunbar’s number has wide-ranging implications for the workplace; from the way departments are structured to the degree of socialization that’s supported by management. It has even contributed to the development of new leadership models and approaches.

According to the authors of Tribal Leadership (Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fisher-Wright), one of the most effective ways to build a thriving organization is by leveraging the naturally occurring tribal groups (20-150 people) that form in every workplace. While they acknowledge that these groups may not start off as a positive force, they believe the right kind of tribal leadership will make them unstoppable. In the book they describe the following five stages of employee tribe development and culture. They also provide leadership strategies to move tribes through the stages to become united, highly effective workplace tribes.

  1. Stage One: The stage most professionals skip, these are tribes whose members are despairingly hostile—they may create scandals, steal from the company, or even threaten violence.
  2. Stage Two: The dominant culture for 25 percent of workplace tribes, this stage includes members who are passively antagonistic, sarcastic, and resistant to new management initiatives.
  3. Stage Three: 49 percent of workplace tribes are in this stage, marked by knowledge hoarders who want to outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. They are lone warriors who not only want to win, but need to be the best and brightest.
  4. Stage Four: The transition from “I’m great” to “we’re great” comes in this stage where the tribe members are excited to work together for the benefit of the entire company.
  5. Stage Five: Less than 2 percent of workplace tribal culture is in this stage when members who have made substantial innovations seek to use their potential to make a global impact.

In the words of Seth Godin: “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

Perhaps, as Robin Dunbar suggests, the size of our brains will continue to limit the extent of our personal and workplace tribes, but that’s no reason to limit their potential.


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