We can only be engaged with so many people.
Robin Dunbar calculated it at around 150, and although there is some argument around how social media impacts that, the core concept of meaningful relationships appears to hold good. We have limited emotional and attentional bandwidth, and we work best when we husband these resources.
Alfie Kohn, another respected academic, adds another angle. In his book, “punished by rewards”, he demonstrates that by giving people who have vocations, those who work for the love of what they do, “hard” financially based goals, we destroy their motivation. (as ably demonstrated by current state approaches to education and health).
Bring the two together, and we underpin what we already sense. Engagement is maximised in relatively small groups doing something they believe in that is bigger than them.
Despite all the efforts we may make, we will not create engagement in the middle of the distribution curve. Logic and intuition seems to support the notion that in any group, there will be a standard deviation – a small number – around 1 sigma who will be very engaged, and similar number at the other end of the curve who are actively disengaged, with the majority, in the middle of the curve, happy to turn up, but who derive their satisfaction elsewhere,
Which brings me back to Professors Dunbar and Kohn. In a group of 150, If I have 10%, or 15 people highly engaged working with another 120 who are happy to turn up, that makes a good and effective team. I can cope with the 15 who are disengaged, mainly because social norms makes it unlikely they will stay. They are visible. If on the other hand, my organisation has 15,000 people, then 1500 people are not so visible, and they become an embedded, and energy sapping part of the culture. Much harder to identify, and even harder to convert or isolate.
I also suspect that the larger the group, the more diluted the sense of common purpose, and the weaker the “glue” that holds the organisation together. Far more likely to become a transactional, financially measured and focused organisation that will wax and wane rapidly. Great for investors with good timing, not so much for those interested in communities.
If we want to get something useful done, we should bear this in mind. Small groups, held together by a common purpose bigger than them, where everybody knows each other. Leadership and Management become intertwined, not separate “disciplines”. Stuff happens.
In the end, engagement is a consequence of committed groups doing something they believe in with people who support them. It is transformational.
The middle of the curve? – that’s transactional. Little we do can make it transformational. not bad, just something to recognise.
Trying to turn transactional relationships into transformational ones is probably possible in smaller groups. In large ones. it’s largely a mugs game.
Engagement is built at the outset, It cannot be retrofitted.