Friends at the workplace…who needs them?


This links together my previous posts on large company malaise (and Amit’s fantastic post on fun*work). Here are the links: Flawed 9-to-5, Juggernautistic, Fun*Work.

I had another series of posts on why people leave their jobs. Another one about the Exodus of friends at my employer.

Update: Amit had an earlier post on Talent Factories, that agrees with the assertions below. It’s not that easy for people to move jobs and retain performance in their new “tribe”. Also, look for the great piece about Hindustan Levers, and how their managers spend 35-40% time to “groom” their team. How peculiar, that the same term is used for monkeys and managers!!! Other than nit-picking, I am hoping! 😉

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Mrs. Rhesus Macaque- Engineer, Business-Monkey. My engineering college gave us ample opportunity to observe monkey behavior first-hand. The four years we spent at the college were spent in the company of college friends and several troops of Indian Rhesus monkeys. (Yep, the same monkey whose name adorns our blood group classification). There was an ancient Hanuman temple near our college, and therefore these monkeys were a protected-and-well-fed lot. The monkeys had little by way of real work, given that worshippers at the local temple left tasty treats for them. This left the monkeys to engage in true monkey business- they spent their time on our college playground fighting each other, grooming each other, and establishing superiority over each other in that typical monkey fashion. All out in the open.

I was reminded of this after my last post on the flawed 9-to-5 work-day model. In one of the responses on LinkedIn, one of my friends had a comment about how small companies can spend their time in meaningful meetings and work schedules, while larger companies have to rely on systems and processes. That brought my thoughts to Dunbar’s number.

According to Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist, based on the relative brain size, a human being can maintain close relationships with around 150 people at most. This number, known in popular press as Dunbar’s number, has acquired cult status in recent years as the official limit for all sorts of things. The number of friends one could maintain in life, the number of people in a tribe, the number of people in a work-place, the number of girlfriends who Tiger Woods could remember…all manner of social groups haven been shown to have this limitation. There’s more stuff on this limit on the Wiki entry, and a generic google search would bring out counter-arguments as well.

The other very interesting thing that Dunbar states is that in order for any of these groups to stick together, a full 42% of the time would be spend in social grooming. That means human beings, like monkeys, have to spend a lot of time getting to know each other and in social etiquette and graces. This helps them establish mutual trust, a relative pecking order, and an ability to trade “favors” over time. This shared time- time spend meaninglessly in sharing gossip, jokes and tips- is seen an important social glue in all human social groups. That’s what keeps the group together.

So, is it useful to think of the workplace as another social group engaged in a shared activity? You bet! The real question is- do we realize that people need to be friends even at the workplace in order to work together? In order to be friends, we have to bond with each other, which means we have to engage in a 42% of social bonding time. Which  company actually spends that much time in internal team-building efforts?

Not the big companies.“Company culture” and organizational processes take the place of social bonding rituals. It is no wonder that people join and leave the group quickly. Dilbertian office meetings are a result of this lack of social cohesion, and the shortage of time spent in getting to know one’s colleagues. Meetings with formal agendas, all-day-workshops with death-by-powerpoint schedules. All these are comically opposite our basic human nature.

We humans are a social species, and we look at our workplace as another source of friends in our social network. The modern large-company-workplace seems designed to be de-humanized and boring. People leave these companies- never having connected to their colleagues. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Onboarding should be a team activity. Meetings should be opportunities to assert friendships. Trust should be built over multiple transactions. Gossiping- not the malicious kind- may be encouraged. Work should be seen as a way for people to find better connections.

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