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June 16, 2016  |  Scaling a company is hard for many reasons, but it’s the relationship of the people in your business and success that I’d argue is the most important. It’s also the most challenging – and it isn’t because we suck at harnessing our employees, it’s psychological. We can’t change it.

This stems from Dunbar’s Theory – based on research in the 90’s on primates, it suggests a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships with. It’s 150 people – a number that’s smaller than some of your companies, or even departments. Dunbar describes it wonderfully as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

Once your companies scale to above 150, if you’ve ever experienced it, communication and alignment becomes more challenging. You’ll know you hit this limit when you start needing name tags to know who your colleagues are at company events.

Managers in organizations play a major role in maintaining these connections both within their own teams and cross-functionally. They bridge the gap between what leadership wants to see and the behaviours of front-line employees.


Monkey in the middle.

In the constructs of most organizations, managers have it tough. They traditionally aren’t part of developing the corporate purpose, values or objectives of the company but they’re the face of ensuring every employee is aligned to them. They’re stuck in this middle ground where they’re not being communicated to about the strategic narrative of the organization and are expected to align themselves and their employees to it.

This is probably why according to Gallup, only 35% of managers are actually engaged at work. The ripple-effect of this has additional organizational impact – more specifically kills your employee retention and business performance.

Should managers be more accountable? Are HR departments and companies not offering the right training and enablement? Should we just let it go because to Dunbar’s point, we’re challenged to build great relationships with that many people outside of our personal networks?


Quit monkeying around.

It’s important for companies to partner together to align everyone in the business and maximize it for success. But how?

You could get pretty aggressive with it:

In Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, he describes how the company W. L. Gore and Associates discovered that if more than 150 employees were working together in one building, different social problems could occur so they started building company buildings with a limit of 150 employees. When full, the company would build another 150-employee building.

Ok, not pretty aggressive… REALLY aggressive!

If you don’t have that luxury, I suggest leveraging your managers to help drive success in your company. Managers have massive impact in organizations and are the glue that can help keep your company aligned.

How can you leverage managers in your company to drive success?

  1. Hire right – Yeah yeah, everyone says that, but don’t create bad people-managers. Find past direct reports and talk to them to make sure before a hire. When promoting from within, have them lead committees or groups to get feedback about how effective they are.
  2. Give them tools and insight – too often, information is filtered by HR that gets to managers and the time it takes hinders management responsiveness. Offer tools that provide real-time insight to your managers.
  3. Include them – managers must be part of the conversations the support growth of the company. Their understanding is critical to communicating to employees.
  4. Make them accountable. Make the company accountable – Try this exercise – get employees to give feedback on where their managers can improve. Pick the top few and place leadership and management initiatives to address them. It makes a world of difference having everyone accountable.

Dunbar’s theory is an interesting one that outlines the challenges in maintaining relationships with a large number of people, something that is important in order to grow.  It’s a great reminder that as we scale, things become harder and just the practice of throwing more people at a problem or having more resources necessarily makes things easier.

Would love to hear stories about how you’ve experience this phenomenon in your company.