Our own numbers

We all know that business relationships do not differ much from personal ones. Quite often, they overlap. Sometimes a customer can become a friend, a fact that doesn’t always make business easier, but the value of a true friend is not to be underestimated. In our busy schedules, it is a real struggle to maintain the various relationships we have built over the years. Moreover, anthropologist Robin Dunbar claims that we are physically not capable of handling more than a limited number of relationships at any one time. According to Dunbar, the neocortex area of our brains that is responsible for processing and storing that information simply cannot process too many people, and we forget whomever our brain deems “unworthy” of our attention. Certainly a shocking statement, but based on scientific research after all.

Dunbar established his theory while working with primates, who are his primary research subject. He found that, depending on the size of their brain, different primate species tend to form predictably different sized social groupings. These groups interact socially but, without the ability to speak, they maintain relationships through activities like grooming, or, in Dunbar’s words, “social grooming”. Dunbar then went on to extend his theory to human social studies, and estimated that the size of our brain should limit us to having active relationships with approximately 100-250 individuals. This range is commonly summarized to 150, which is the number of people we can have meaningful relationships with. This includes business relationships. But what does this number tell us, exactly? It means that, for example, we may well have the sought-after 500+ contacts on LinkedIn (with 500+ contacts, we are considered somebody of importance by LinkedIn), but there is no realistic way of maintaining a close, meaningful relationship with all of them.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we don’t need 500+ contacts to form a valuable business network. Instead, we can focus on the 150 people we can handle and who may actually support our professional and private endeavors. So, what is the strategy? The first step is simple: check your contacts (personal as well as business-related), and honestly evaluate with whom you have a good relationship already, or who could be potentially important for you in the future. The interesting thing is that this applies to business as well as private life. We should surround ourselves with people who are good for us, and surround ourselves with people who can really advance our careers. The next step is to foster diversity, to ensure that our business moves ahead in matters of innovation. Bringing people of different disciplines together is a great booster for creativity and cooperation. This is also equally fulfilling for our personal development, because we constantly learn from the people we interact with on a regular basis. By adding different perspectives and broadening our horizons, we can create a culture of constant change and innovation for ourselves and everyone around us.

The symbolic 500+ contacts may contain the 150 people we want to be networking with. To achieve that, we need to put effort into actively nurturing each relationship and enriching it with frequent conversation. Social media is a great catalyst for growing overly long contact lists, but if we move past that, social media also allows us to stay in touch easier than ever before. We can use all the available channels to start or maintain conversations. The important thing is not to use digital channels as a substitute for personal contact. We can stop wasting our time trying to grow a long list of “people worth knowing”, and learn to say goodbye to “bad” relationships instead. The time we save can be used to have dinner with a customer, or a really good friend who happens to have a business opportunity for us that we would have missed otherwise.

What do we learn from Dunbar’s number? On the one hand, it reminds us that we are still human beings with finite cognitive capabilities who cannot possibly process as much data as modern technology can. On the other hand, Dunbar’s number also encourages us to think about the people who mean something to us and our businesses. We should figure out a personally relevant number out of Dunbar’s range and focus on nurturing the relationships it reveals to us. The exact number we establish for ourselves is secondary; it is more about being aware that the number of people we can integrate into our lives is limited. That makes it so much more important to make the relationships that we have work.