The RSA



Group size, networks and ethical behaviour

Recent times have seen some alarming instances of small groups at the top of organisations behaving in appalling ways: the contempt of traders for the ‘muppets’ outside the Wall Street charmed circle; the manipulation of the Libor rate; the police officers responsible for covering up the events at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989. Piers Ibbotson FRSA argues that these instances may not be anomalies and may be an inevitable consequence of an organisation’s size and the imposition of structures that are blind to the fundamental architecture of human groups.

‘Networking’ is a crucial factor in growing and developing a business or a career. But recent research by Robin Dunbar and others at Oxford University shows that very few of us are in fact capable of building a very large network and if our network is very large, for most of us, it will be correspondingly weak. Researchers have demonstrated that there is a limit to the size of a group with which anyone can sustain affective relationships.”

In humans, the maximum number of individuals that a person can ‘know’ is around 150.  But this number contains smaller, nested groups within it, characterised by different degrees of intimacy. On average, most humans have a core group of around five individuals that comprise their close intimates and a larger ‘sympathy group’ of around 15 to 20, with whom they will maintain regular contact.  The composition of these groups may change with time but the upper size limits remain constant. This research has some profound implications for organisational life. It implies that everyone has a limited number of ‘slots’ available for intimates to connect with them. If many of these slots are taken up with immediate family or close kin, there will be fewer for work colleagues or non-related friends.

We are only able to bear a limited number of people in our social network at any one time. We will eventually fill up all our slots and reach the limits of the trust and empathy that we have to give. As this happens our bonds with others become weaker and weaker. These weak bonds are profoundly important to maintaining the viability of a group, in that they are the source of novelty and variety and the insurance against the dangers of groupthink. But eventually we run out of road, beyond a certain number, it is not possible for us really to care that much about others.

The people in our core network are the source of our confidence, self-esteem, status, ethical values and creative potential. Those in the outer rings of our networks, whom we know only slightly, are often the source of information and resources that are vital to our continued survival.

Organisational structures often cut across, or ignore our actual personal networks and impose other groupings that we have to live with. Once a network is established, however, people tend to want them to continue. We are biased towards belonging and quickly establish in-groups and out-groups structured around the numbers outlined in the research.

As organisations grow in size and complexity, the layers of the hierarchy will increase. Any individual manager in a very large organisation may quickly find that all the available slots in their intimacy group are taken up by people within the few layers of the hierarchy with whom they daily interact. However hard they try, those further away in the hierarchy will become ‘other’. It is extremely easy for weak bonds to erode to no bond at all and for a bonded group, around a charismatic leader, to become isolated. Members of a top team can find that they have used up all the empathy they have on the people with whom they are obliged to have the most contact.

There has been much research around what happens to small groups that become isolated and inward looking. Isolated groups, with strong leaders can fall prey to group think or, in extreme cases, develop the kind of ethical delusions that lead to horrific abuse. (The Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo in the early 1970s and its shocking real-life counterpart at Abu Ghraib are examples). In normal groups, weak bonds to the wider network are vital in insuring against these outcomes. The larger limit of 150 seems to be the minimum number necessary to avoid these dangers of isolation and it seems that this wider group of familiar faces, with whom we have weak but real connections, are essential in maintaining the ethical behaviour of a community. It is the censure of those known to us, but not necessarily intimate with us, that polices our ethical behaviour.

Our networked community, while a source of strength, also limits your ability to empathise with those outside it. We will privilege those we know best. New affective bonds can only be made face- to-face, by doing things together, and they can only be made with a limited number of people. If people are not known to us, in the physical sense, we can lose our empathic connection and behave uncaringly towards them. Electronic communications makes this dangerously easy to do.

Looking more closely at the actual size and the real composition of our networks, not just the patterns laid out for us in the organisational ‘tree’, may also allow us to think in a radically different way about who we bring together for different projects and how we shape our organisations so that they acknowledge our strengths – and our limitations – as social animals. If the numbers in our networks are absolutely limited, it becomes extremely important who those individuals are and how strongly we are bonded to them.

It is a bit like casting a play. If you are to direct Hamlet, you need to have all the characters present at some stage in the rehearsals and you need to spend time with them.  Hierarchies mean that directors of large organisations never get to spend time with the gravediggers or the messengers who are essential to the plot of the organisational performance. Plays never have more than a handful of principal characters and they rarely have more that 20 characters altogether. This is perhaps, not a coincidence. The ideas and practices of ensemble theatre provide a ready tool kit for understating how human groups work on this scale and much of this wisdom is transferable to other contexts.


Piers Ibbotson runs Directing Creativity, which provides management development and training for business, using techniques and approaches from the world of theatre. He is an internationally respected speaker, coach and facilitator whose principle interests are in creative leadership, innovation and group creativity.

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