Robin Dunbar: Forging Relationships at the Workplace
relationship mastery

Robin Dunbar: Forging Relationships at the Workplace

15 min read

When considering methods of optimizing efficiencies at the workplace, people may think of automation software or a general improvement to the technology used. However, there is one factor right under everyone's nose, and it's the quality of relationships at the workplace.

Robin Dunbar, a leading anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford with more than 25 years of research, was invited for a discussion with Covve's CEO, Yiannis Gavrielides, on how humans form relationships and their impact at the office. He shares valuable insights on how humans assess the quality of a relationship, and how we form and maintain our important social relationships.

Professor Dunbar discusses his famous ‘Dunbar's number' and how it applies to human behavior at work, as well as the 7 pillars of friendship. He highlights that meaningful relationships are founded on trust. Dunbar's number suggests that when it comes to maintaining stable relationships, the maximum number of relationships is around 150.

The reason being that the more social relationships we pursue, the more diluted our time becomes, and the less effort we can give to cultivating meaningful relationships. Professor Dunbar observed that, when we first meet someone new, we devote about one month's time getting to know them, and assessing them based on how many ‘boxes' they tick in relation to the 7 Pillars of Friendship.

Dunbar refers to these 7 pillars as the seven dynamics of friendship. They consist of the following:

  • Speaking the same language
  • Where you were raised
  • Career trajectory
  • Common interests
  • World views
  • Music interests
  • Humor

Consider your relationships with your colleagues. They lie within the "career trajectory" pillar. When there are off-site events, or work dinners, we will make an effort to go with those we are closest with. Professor Dunbar states that our work ties persist as long as we have common projects and common interests with our colleagues. Moving on to different projects will likely erode those ties.

Essentially, the more commonalities we have with one another, the better the quality of our relationships. We explore these commonalities by meeting new people, exchanging ideas and doing favors for one another to know them better, and to allow others to get to know us, too.

Professor Dunbar discusses how large, successful companies can create "happy, integrated" work environments. He shares the example of how SABMiller, a brewing company that produces the famous Miller Lite lager, installed pubs at the entrance of each factory, so that the employees across departments could intermingle and connect, growing their networks and helping them cultivate strong relationships with each other.

It is important that as we seek ways to improve the way we work, we prioritize creating a sense of community and bonding at our workplace. It doesn't mean that we must invite our colleagues to our home, rather, it's about making the effort to interact with them during, or after work.

When we engage in conversations with our colleagues to get a feel of their proximity to Dunbar's 7 pillars, we contribute to the improvement of the collective workplace. We can achieve that by participating in social events with our colleagues, or making the time to get lunch with them. Professor Dunbar refers to these interactions as "little windows of opportunity to meet new people". Let's capitalize on these windows of opportunity, and create workplaces that resemble close-knit communities focused on nurturing long lasting relationships.