Human Connections at Work with Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar is a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University who has spent most of his career trying to answer a deceptively simple question:

How and why did humans evolve to be such a sociable species?

He is perhaps best known for the so-called Dunbar’s number, the idea that there is an upper limit to the number of meaningful social relationships we can maintain.

It’s an idea that seems to hold true at work as well, even now – in the era of remote and hybrid work. While theoretically, we can connect with anyone, anywhere (thanks to our cool gadgets and technology,) it seems that cultivating meaningful relationships, remotely or not, still requires spending quality time together. And time is a limited resource for all of us.

In this interview professor Dunbar and I talk about how we can apply the findings from his research when we design our teams and organizations, why the number 150 is so important to keep in mind when we build a business, about his forecast when it comes to the return – or no return – to the office – and much more!

“We don’t go into work because we have to, we go into work because we have pride in our job.”

Episode Highlights

In this interview, Daniel and I discuss:

  • How Dan’s upbringing in Alaska with three brothers pushed him to research group performance.
  • The three pillars of thriving cultures – safety, vulnerability, and purpose – and how they contribute to ensuring group success.
  • How our facial expressions can signal belonging.
  • The importance of humor and playfulness in the workplace.
  • Cultivating safety through bold acts of authentic vulnerability.
  • Dealing with negative feedback and bad news.
  • Tips on how to effectively scale purpose.
  • Simulating physical proximity through mental closeness.

“It’s all very well, for those who say no, no hybrid working is here to stay. My answer to that is simply look at history.”

Listen to the interview in the player below or on iTunes. If you like what you hear, please leave a review, and it may be featured on a future episode.

More about Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar grew up in East Africa not far from where the Leakeys were discovering the Olduvai fossil beds. He gained his MA from the University of Oxford and PhD from Bristol University. He is currently Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford, and an emeritus Fellow of Magdalen College.

He has held Research Fellowships and Professorial Chairs in Psychology, Biology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, Stockholm University, University College London, and the University of Liverpool. He is an elected Fellow of the British Academy, and was co-Director of the British Academy’s Centenary Research Project. He is an elected Foreign Member of the Finnish Academy of Science & Letters and an Honorary Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

His principal research interests focus on the evolution of sociality in mammals (with particular reference to ungulates, primates, and humans). He is best known for the social brain hypothesis, the gossip theory of language evolution, and Dunbar’s Number (the limit on the number of relationships that we can manage). His current project focuses on the mechanisms of social cohesion and uses a range of approaches from comparative analysis to cognitive experiments to neuroimaging to explore the mechanisms that allow humans to create large-scale communities. He has published over 30 academic and popular science books, and over 550 research articles. His popular science books include:

Books mentioned in this episode

Social Brain by Robin Dunbar

How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks by Robin Dunbar

Additional resources

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