NEURO-M Work-Groups

An that influences NEURO-M concepts arises from our anthropological origins. As described by anthropologist and evolutionary scientist Robin Dunbar, humans have a limited capacity, but a strong need, to develop relationships at varying levels of intimacy. In other primates this is limited by the time taken for “social grooming”, a set of physical acts that display trust and sacrifice. In humans, language has largely taken this over, allowing us to connect more quickly with more people with varying degrees of intimacy, authenticity, safety and commitment.

In the workplace, it is reasonable to expect that employees can become very close to one to five other people in safe, stable relationships that go beyond simply getting the job done (this number correlates to Dunbar’s “inner circle”). This is important for feelings of safety, trust and belonging. Outside of that, good relationships are important at varying levels of trust and intimacy, and as some move closer others move away – this is natural and can work well in the workplace so long as stability is far more prevalent than change. For work-groups where collaboration, cooperation or shared effort are necessary, this means 4-6 members is ideal, stretching to 8 if necessary, at which stage there will probably be two sub-groups within the group. And don’t forget- the team leader is one of those people.

We see these group sizes all around us – for example sporting teams typically divide into two or more groups – forwards and backs, batters and bowlers, each with their own micro-cultures. This doesn’t mean those groups dislike or act against each other, but that it is simply too hard to form very close relationships with more than a few people. The military does this well too, with small semi-autonomous sub-units with as few as four people who develop relationships close enough to sacrifice themselves for – this doesn’t happen for people outside of the inner circle.

The idea of family, tribe, village is well-rooted in our past, and reflects the interdependence necessary thousands of years ago simply for survival. As an individual 20,000 years ago, a human would be very unlikely to survive a danger-rich and nutrient-poor world, so those who felt compelled to form alliances, even at some personal cost, were able to work together more effectively, and with mutual trust and commitment take risks for each other when defending, attacking or hunting. This also allowed for a longer period of child-parent dependence, allowing our brains longer to mature, and so become more complex and capable.

Both then and now, small groups were and are also helpful for communication and cooperation, and in combination with optimising capacity where two people working together can achieve more than two people working alone, it also turns out that optimal group size for capability and coordination is often around five subject to the breadth of competence required.

The main reason for larger group sizes is one of economics – why have two manager salaries in a group of sixteen when you can, as a controlling and monitoring function, get by with one? The difference however is financially-justified – smaller, better connected groups high on shared goals, openness and mutual commitment are naturally more efficient, stable, engaged and productive. For the difference extra cost of someone as a manager (or supervisor or leading hand), the return on investment is usually well-and-truly justified – for no risk!

Smaller groups, either independent or as connected sub-groups, also allows for succession planning. With smaller groups and narrower responsibilities, leaders can work with others in the group to develop their own leadership skills as a part of their commitment to the career development of team members who wish to pursue that path and have accomplished enough to deserve that opportunity. This also allows “future leaders” to take up some leadership responsibilities in the leader’s absence.

The other primal drive is for leadership that provides unity, safety and certainty, even at the cost of some personal freedom and autonomy. Tribes that respected their leaders, and leaders who provided safety to their tribes and led from the front in battle or when hunting, passed their genes on to us. Those that didn’t – didn’t. This is why people would prefer to make sacrifices for strong leadership – for example, the esteem many Russians still hold for Stalin, along with the resurrection of modern, nationalist politics and security policies around the world is a testament to this. However, when threat is reduced, leaders have less room for coercive behaviours but are still expected to be focused on collective goals, leading by example while providing certainty and safety.

Unfortunately, the unifying nature of perceived external threats is also abused by leaders who seek to secure or enhance their power to the detriment of the well-being or indeed life of others through fear and division. This also happens in the business world where some employers develop sacrifice-based cultures that disadvantage employees, or where militant unionism tilts the balance unfairly in other direction. While these practices leverage neurobiology and behavioural psychology, we don’t see them as NEURO-M as they are not ethically acceptable and don’t sustainably enhance success and well-being. For those who are attracted by the power granted by division and conflict, history has many examples of that turning out badly for everyone, especially the sound-bite adept and often-charismatic leader.

So, from a NEURO-M perspective, our social needs of small group sizes and primal leadership are necessary for protection and success, but also make us vulnerable. This places more responsibility, rather than simply power, on the shoulders of those with the most opportunity and influence. From small, focused, nimble, intra- and inter- dependent and connected teams, through to leveraging the power of leadership for the benefit of others, a NEURO-M approach enhances performance, stability, engagement and well-being for the benefit of all.

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Dunbar, R. I. M., How Many Friends Does One Person Need (2010) Faber and Faber, London, UK

Dunbar, R. I. M., Barret, L., Lycett, J. Evolutionary Psychology (2007) Oneworld, London, UK