Management Advantage Newsletter
  Winter 2012/13

??How many friends can you have?

We’re regularly asked by workshop participants: How big should my network be? And we tend to reply: How long is a piece of string? In other words, if you ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

But on reflection, the question isn’t quite so silly, especially if it is rephrased like this: “How big a network can I maintain?” The answer might well be: about 150.

If this sounds simplistic, you might be interested to hear about research by Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has discovered that our social world is actually much more limited than we might expect. Despite the fact that for the past couple of hundred years most of us have been living in ever-larger cities, average network size remains at the 150 mark (the number is by no means exact, and can be over 200).

To check his findings, Dunbar looked at all sorts of data sources. Most tribal societies today live in groups of around 150. Average village size England in the year 1087 (as recorded by William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book) was 150. In many armies the smallest standalone unit (the Company in the British Army) is around 150 people. And if you look at the parish records for English counties in the 18th century, in each one the average village size is 150 (except, inexplicably, for Kent!).

Who are these people? Actually, each network of 150 people can be broken down into smaller groups. Firstly, most of us have a small circle of about 5 people with whom we are intimate. Then we have about 15 good friends, about 50 friends, and in the region of 150 acquaintances. Interestingly and again inexplicably, each level seems to increase by about a factor of 3.

Each category includes the previous ones, rather like the concentric rings created by a pebble thrown into a lake (where you, of course, are the pebble at the centre). The first three groups (intimates, good friends and friends) are fairly self-explanatory – but the outer circle of acquaintances are the most interesting, from a networking perspective.

Dunbar describes these acquaintances in two ways. On the one hand, they are people with whom you have some sort of relationship; they aren’t just names and faces. To use Dunbar’s own phrase, they are people with whom you could easily have a drink if you ran into them in the transit lounge of Dubai airport in the small hours.

Another way of describing them is to do with face time. These are people with whom you do things. People from whom you could ask a favour and have a reasonable expectation of a positive reply.

Why so few?

Why is our social world so restricted? Dunbar thinks there are two reasons. One is simply a time constraint. There are only so many hours in the day, after all, and so the time we can spend, face to face with friends and acquaintances, is by definition limited. However much we may want to invest in our relationships, reality gets in the way.

The second constraint is cognitive, to do with brain size. When studying primates, Dunbar found a clear correlation between brain size and group size; it follows that we are simply not able to keep track of more than about 150 relatively close contacts.

Facebook friends?

Dunbar, along with many other academics, argues that face to face contact is crucial to relationship building. Technology – from the telephone to email and social media – is great at helping us keep relationships going, especially in our spread-out world where we may have been born in one place, went to college somewhere else, and end up working in a third place. They help to prevent relationships decaying if you’re too far apart to go to the pub together – but, in the end, if we don’t manage to get to the pub occasionally, the relationship is likely to wither away.

So if you know anybody who claims to have 1000 Facebook friends, you know they must be kidding themselves. While people clearly vary in their ability to manage relationships, such extremes are (almost certainly) just not true. Being invited to a party, as I once was, with 2,000 of my host’s closest friends was fine – so long as I realised that ‘close’ wasn’t meant to be taken literally. Those hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’ aren’t even acquaintances; they’re more like entries in a database.

Facebook themselves have confirmed Dunbar’s general finding. It seems that the average friend count is 190, and 50% of people have about 100 Facebook friends.

Practical implications

We’ve always said that simply connecting names and business cards isn’t networking. A database isn’t a network. And we’ve always stressed the importance of your weak ties, which are roughly equivalent to Dunbar’s acquaintances. Pay attention to your active network, nurture it and make sure you invest sufficiently by keeping in touch (both face to face and electronically).

Realise, too, that all Dunbar is proposing is an average. Some of you will be natural connectors, able to maintain a wide-ranging network relatively easily. But if your network is very small, you may need to invest more time and effort.

Take a look at your own network, and let us know if Dunbar’s number holds true for you.

To find out more about the Dunbar number, read How many friends does one person need? Or visit And if you want to read about Facebook’s research, visit


The Eyes Have It

Late summer at Beadnell beach in Northumberland, and my brother in law Simon and I are out sea kayaking. It’s high tide and fairly gusty, and a freak wave catapults us both into the water. My glasses are secured with a headband, but as he surfaces, it’s clear that Simon and his specs have parted company. We feel around with our toes, but as the water is moving quickly and neither of us have a clue as to whether glasses float, sink or just hover in mid water, we soon have to give up.

As the tide goes out, we scour the exposed sand without really expecting to find anything, but Simon’s wife Jude makes a point of asking everyone she sees to look out for a pair of lost glasses.

By the end of the day, Simon is resigned to wearing his prescription shades for the rest of the trip – a bit of an inconvenience indoors and at night – but the very last thing Jude does before leaving the beach for the evening is to half-heartedly check with the ice cream van whether anyone’s handed in a pair of specs. And miraculously they have, none the worse for their salt water excursion and handed in not by someone Jude had spoken to, but by someone who had simply overheard her asking someone else to keep an eye out.

So what are the lessons? First, if you can get over your embarrassment about asking for help, people will readily give it. Would you really bother to pick up and hand in a pair of sand encrusted glasses unless you knew someone had lost them that day from that same beach? Second, this is a classic case of ‘weak tie’ networking: people at the very periphery of Jude’s network provided unexpected help (in this case an overheard conversation) which can only happen if you let people know what you’re trying to achieve. And finally, think laterally about your options – how many of us would have considered checking in at the ice cream van?

And of course the most important networking lesson of all... tie your glasses on securely before you get in a kayak.


Don't Tell Us, Tell Amazon!

We know from our email inboxes that lots of you have read our book 'The Network Effect' and enjoyed it- but far fewer have communicated that in an Amazon review. The book has 4.8 out of 5 stars from 40 reviews, and we'd like to make that 100 reviews if we possibly can. So if you have a few minutes spare while waiting for the kettle to boil, please do pen a few words on whichever Amazon site is local to your country.

2013 Open Workshops & Dates

If you liked that, you'll like this...

Click here to scroll through the full 2013 open workshop schedule and  book any of the workshops detailed below:

Six Degrees of Separation - Effective networking skills for business development and career management

Leader: Judith Perle
or Tony Newton

Tue 12 Mar 2013

Central London

Tue 18 Jun 2013

Central London

Tue 17 Sep 2013

Central London

Effective networking demands the application of a set of skills which can be codified and taught. Once learnt, you can apply these skills to great effect in both business and personal life. Even well-educated, confident, successful people are often not very good at making easy connections, or indeed just 'making the call'. And if you can’t make the easy connections, you're certainly going to have trouble with the ones which require more ‘front’ and persistence!

Understanding Negotiation- A Life Skill You Shouldn’t Be Without

Leader: Tony Newton

Tue 21 May 2013

Central London

Tue 8 Oct 2013

Central London

Through the use of anecdote, example and interaction, the course leader demonstrates the strategies and tactics that can help you in any negotiating situation. There is ample opportunity for ‘role play’ to try out these techniques and approaches in a safe, supportive environment. We can also discuss and help resolve any issues that you may have relating to specific negotiation situations, such as a salary discussion or contract renewal

Ain't What You Do, It's The Way You Do It - Non-verbal communication in action

Leader: Judith Perle

Tue 15 Oct 2013

Central London

With up to 85% of communication being non-verbal, how we do and say things is at least as important as the actual words we use. Whether you’re making a new contact, entering into a negotiation, establishing your position in a hierarchy or simply trying to get along better with colleagues, an appreciation of the importance of non-verbal communication is an essential element of the manager’s toolkit.

This half day workshop presents a range of tools and techniques for interpreting non-verbal cues, and for ensuring that the cues you give out are appropriate and really do match their intended effect. Access to these tools will enhance your influencing skills, allow you to understand what's going on behind the facade and give you an enormous advantage in 'reading' people's real intentions, motivations and concerns.

Good On Your Feet - Presentation Skills That Keep an Audience Engaged

Leaders: Tony Newton
and Judith Perle

Tue 25 Jun 2013

Central London

Our 'Good On Your Feet' workshop is structured to give intensive, practical help to a small group of people and takes as its starting point the fact that any presentation - be it impromptu vote of thanks, PowerPoint presentation to colleagues or clients, or conference keynote speech - can be deconstructed into a number of identifiable elements and that individual participants will vary widely in their comfort with each of those elements.

Those component parts are individually discussed, practised and critiqued in a series of exercises (including video recording) and ultimately woven back together to ensure that by the end of the workshop, all participants feel better able to make a coherent, confident and above all, engaging presentation.

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 or call Tony Newton on 07785 766 060 or Judith Perle on 07947 010 342


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