How the Dunbar Number Can Help You Maintain a Strong Organizational Culture Through Growth

Your company will face many different challenges as it grows: expanding your office space, scaling customer service, and onboarding new team members to say the least. But have you ever worried about what will happen to your tight-knit company culture as your staff roster increases? And how do you maintain a sense of community if your company spans cities, states, or even countries?
It turns out you’re right to worry. Strong organizational cultures based on close relationships are incredibly valuable because they help companies maintain high levels of productivity, profitability, and employee satisfaction. But, according to a long-researched sociological principle called the Dunbar Number, the larger your company grows, the less effective your employees will be in maintaining relationships and communicating with each other. Growing your organization without taking this into account could threaten the strength of your culture.

Dunbar’s Number

Dunbar’s Number was developed by University of Oxford professor Robin Dunbar. He began to study this phenomenon in great detail and found that humans only have the capacity to maintain 150 close relationships. Beyond that number, it becomes difficult to form relationships or maintain an emotional connection — two very important characteristics of healthy teams with a strong organizational culture.As the story goes, Bill Gore, the founder of GORE-TEX, was heavily expanding his production capacity and building new factories. However, he found that the larger the factory, the less likely employees were to work hard and help each other. He realized that once a factory reached about 150 people, it showed signs of decreased efficiency and productivity.

Applying the Dunbar Number to Large Company Cultures

Fortunately, you don’t have to limit your company’s growth in order to maintain your success. You do, however, have to provide opportunities for small-scale employee interaction. Use the following tips to grow beyond the Dunbar Number and maintain a strong organizational culture:

Create subgroups

A large company doesn’t have to interact as a large company. Instead, you can manufacture opportunities for smaller groups to become more connected. These groups can be based on departments, interest groups, or even randomly assigned groups. What matters is not what the groups have in common, but that authentic relationships are formed and bolstered over a period of time.

Establish rituals

Team-building rituals can help reinforce a strong organizational culture and give employees a sense of shared history and community. Work with your HR or culture team to develop rituals that align with your company culture. This can be as simple and traditional as quarterly awards ceremonies (after all, who wouldn’t want a Dundie from The Office?) or as creative as a weekly dance party or themed clothing day.

Use internal chat apps

Another way to help employees stay connected to subgroups is to use an internal chat app like Slack or Microsoft Teams for both productive work conversations and “watercooler chat.” This will allow employees to fortify relationships they create through small groups and continue to build a common culture even when they aren’t located near each other.

For example, at CultureIQ, we have Slack channels for each department, as well fun interest-related ones, such as #animals, a channel dedicated to sharing photos of animals, and #culturebabies, a channel dedicated to sharing photos of CultureIQ babies.

Provide time for relationship building

There’s no such thing as “best work friends at first sight.” Relationships take time to develop, and that investment needs to be supported by leadership and management. Whenever possible, set aside time for team-building and relationship-building activities through the outlets listed above so that the emotional connections that form have time to flourish as part of your strong organizational culture. As companies grow, it’s hard to maintain meaningful relationships. Use these tips to create internal communities and opportunities for building a strong organizational culture.