Employee Engagement – is 150 the Magic Number, plus something else?

Is there such a thing as the ‘best’ or ‘right’ number of people in a successful organisation?

Last week I was at the Cardiff University Distinguished Lecture Series where I listened to Professor Robin Dunbar explain that around 150 people is the optimum number to  maintain the informal relationships and cohesiveness that allow a community to function effectively.  Dunbar’s number applies to physical as well as online communities and has been demonstrated through examples as diverse as medieval village populations, military company sizes, numbers on your Christmas card list and even the number of friends people have on Facebook. The evidence from evolutionary anthropology is compelling, go and have a look.

The idea of 150 people as the optimum number for the world of work was illustrated through Gore-Tex. Dear to me as they keep me dry on a wet Welsh day. The other thing I know about Gore-Tex is that they are one of the Sunday Times best companies to work for and have a reputation for a good employee engagement.  What I didn’t realise is that it is a global concern (W.L.Gore & Associates) turning over $3 billion a year, employing over 9,500 people.

The number of awards the company has won is impressive. For the 14th consecutive year in 2011, it was recognised as one of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work for. The number of people employed at each plant is also around the 150 mark. Bill Gore – the late founder of the company, found through trial and error that 150 employees per plant was most ideal. “We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty,” he told an interviewer some years ago.

In each factory they limit the number of employees to 150 so that “everyone knows everyone”.  This sense of connection between people reduces the need for a hierarchy and increases individual commitment to the group’s goals.

It is also interesting to see that the Lean Systems people are able to back up these numbers with some of their own calculations. This post on the Lean Organisation Blog puts the optimum number of people involved in a process at between 156 -166 based upon a basic unit of work teams of between 5-8  There is another link to Professor Dunbar here with 5 being the number of people with whom you have closest connections.

As good as this idea is, there must be something more to it than just numbers. There have been plenty of poor military companies of 150 and a few dysfunctional organisations of 150 people. Having a closer look at W.L.Gore & Associates there are a other indicators of why they have such highly engaged people and a successful organisation. I’d suggest that a number these factors are the same as those which are key to the success of a medieval village, military company or online community of practice. It’s all about values and behaviours.

The culture at Gore is well explained on their website and in numerous articles. It includes gems such as:

“Leaders may be appointed, but are defined by ‘followership.’ More often, leaders emerge naturally by demonstrating special knowledge, skill, or experience that advances a business objective.” What a fantastic approach.

Critically all Gore Associates adhere to four basic guiding principles articulated by Bill Gore:

  • Fairness to each other and everyone with whom we come in contact
  • Freedom to encourage, help, and allow other associates to grow in knowledge, skill, and scope of responsibility
  • Commitment The ability to make one’s own commitments and keep them
  • Consultation with other associates before undertaking actions that could impact the reputation of the company

Alongside the optimum number of 150 people, it is necessary to have guiding principles (like those at Gore) and the right leadership to ensure employee engagement, and a successful organisation. It’s not just a numbers game, but it certainly helps.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. There is an optimum number of 150 to ensure a cohesive community, which can be applied to the workplace and employee engagement.
  2. Being part of something, sharing a common aim and connecting with your co-workers is a key part of engagement in a community.
  3. The optimum number alone will not ensure successful engagement. Factors such as trust, responsibility and leadership play a significant part.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

8 Responses

  1. Nice blog Chris. I used to work for a company that is a major supplier to WL Gore and can confirm that their reputation is well founded. The 150 thing made me think too – there is no doubt that I can’t keep up with all the communities that have, sometimes temporarily, interested me over the years. Maybe I need to rationalise and focus.

    Anyway, thanks for making me think, have tweeted the blog.



  2. […] for more restrictive rules, regulations and enforced norms to maintain order and stable groups. The 150 person “rule” has been discussed and observed in real life, in real companies. One company – W.L.Gore & Associates – makers of Gore-Tex and a company repeatedly […]

  3. […] Somewhere along the way, those conformities stopped working, and changed into broken ones, habits that we maintain simply for the sake of maintaining them, ideas we promulgate simply because they were passed down, behaviors we ape because a bigger monkey on a TV or movie or cell phone screen tells us that THIS is the banana we simply cannot live without. Unsurprisingly, conformities begin to break once you reach a certain critical mass of people. Organizational and anthropological studies have repeatedly confirmed that critical mass: 150. […]

  4. […] Dunbar’s number of 150 people maximum has been found by other researchers in fields as diverse as how many other people users on Twitter interact with, tribe sizes during the Pleistocene and Neolithic, or even the ideal number of people in an office discovered by trial and error by innovative company WL Gore. […]

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