Dunbar’s Number, Shared Experiences, and the Rift Between Campuses and Central Office

A disconnect or rift exists between campuses and central office in many school districts.  In systems with acknowledged rifts we can easily see the damaging results  and the resultant bureaucratic inertia that continues to widen the disconnect.  Any effort to fix this rift and eliminate the disconnect should begin with an understanding of the underlying biological and social causes of these rifts.

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Dunbar’s Number

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, while analyzing the relationship between neocortical size and social group sizes in primates suggested that humans as well have a limit on the amount of certain types of relationships that we are able to maintain. The maximum group size numbers vary based on the depth and complexity of the relationship. Generally speaking, we can maintain around  five intimate friends, 150 casual friends, and put a name to a face for about 1500 people.

The limits of Dunbar’s number represent an underlying biological cause for the rift between campuses and central office.  Employees at central office and the campuses, though required to regularly interact with each other, may not have room for each other at a deep enough relationship level to facilitate efficient interaction.

At each group level, once we are saturated with relationships, everyone else is considered out of the group.  As you might expect we tend to treat people who are out of the group differently and less favorably than people who are in the group.  Even though we may think our groups can be larger than Dunbar’s limitations, evidenced perhaps by our ever-expanding social media circles, the amount of stable relationships we can manage has remained constant. Social media may keep us from forgetting people who are no longer in our groups, but cannot substitute for the power of group shared experiences that prevent disconnects and rifts from forming between individuals (or the campus and central office).

The Importance of Shared Experiences

Shared experiences connect and define groups and the lack of shared experiences is an underlying social cause for existing rifts between campuses and central office.  The shared experiences of central office staff are collectively different from the shared experiences of campus staff. They each have different perspectives, deal with different restraints, are located in different physical environments, and interact with different stakeholders.

A disconnect will eventually develop even for campus staff who move to central office.  Over time their connections to their former campus colleagues, which was strengthened by their daily shared experiences, will begin to reduce in intensity. At the same time their connections with the central office staff will increase because of their new shared experiences.  It is likely that every campus staff member who is moved to central office once believes that they will be different and not ever somewhat disconnected from their campus co-workers but this commitment becomes more difficult without the power of shared experiences.

Overcoming the limitations of Dunbar’s number and the lack of shared experiences

It is possible to work to overcome the limitations of Dunbar’s number and to mitigate the lack of shared experiences between campus and central office staff.  A central office and campus commitment to a Solutions Center vs. a Bureaucratic mindset, adopting an intimate client-service model, creating opportunities for developing shared experiences, and increasing the opportunities for face to face meetings are all good practices for reducing the disconnect between campuses and central office.

I will explore these solutions in future posts, but until then what are some other best practices you have seen to ensure great working relationships between the campuses and central office in your district?  Share your best practices with me on twitter.