Six degrees of Kevin Bacon


I spent quite a bit of time in the car over Labor Day weekend. In the absence of external stimulation (other than the sound of a Scooby Doo movie playing on repeat for hours on end), my brain tends to follows a train of thought wherever it may lead, making leaps and connections I don’t usually have time for (not unlike a nice long walk). In this case, it all started by thinking about road rage.

The anonymity of the other people on the road seems to contribute to road rage – other people on the highway are invisible to and physically separate from us in their thick metal sheaths, zipping down the highway at 60+ mph. Even usually kind and compassionate people seem to feel freer to mutter an irritated, “Nice turn signal, jerk” when driving, compared to, say, if someone bumped into them in a grocery store aisle.

Then there is also the influence of the fundamental attribution error, wherein people ascribe stable, internal causes to people’s behavior (that guy failed to use his turn signal because he is inherently selfish and thoughtless) and transient, situational causes to their own behavior (oops! I forgot to use my turn signal because I was mesmerized by hearing the Scooby Doo theme song for the fortieth time).

The sheer number of vehicles hurtling down the highway probably doesn’t help either. Sociology has suggested that, like other primates, we tend to operate most effectively when the size of our social group doesn’t exceed a certain maximum – about 150 in the case of humans (i.e., the Dunbar number). Beyond this limit, group order and cohesion breaks down. There is a limit to the number of social connections we can reliably maintain.

Cognitive short-cuts, physical separation, and social processing limits conspire to create a sense of “otherness.” When there are too many degrees of separation between people (including Kevin Bacon), the qualities that promote and maintain cohesion start to dissolve – others become “the other.” This dichotomy paves the way for misbehavior – from muttering “nice turn signal, jerk,” to competition for resources and infighting, to downright cruelty. There have been numerous fascinating and frightening studies showing how readily we categorize people into “us” vs. “them” and the consequences of that fact (e.g., Milgram’s electrocution experiments and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment).

What does this all have to do with bettering individuals, teams, and organizations? While we may prefer to think about work as a more professional sphere, distinct from the rest of life, it is really just another microcosm in which these human tendencies play out every day. They may be more readily seen in labor-management face offs, but even in white collar jobs, cumbersome org structures can contribute to a sense of separateness that prevents teamwork, or, worse, leads to antipathy and conflict. The bigger an organization, the more likely these issues become. Bill Gore, founder of GORE-TEX, has recognized this and designs his organization with this effect in mind, capping factory size at 150 people.

As we discussed in an earlier post, this issue is important because interpersonal connection is a crucial element of what motivates and engages people, what moves people from getting the job done to going above and beyond. Lose that connection, and you lose a powerful source for driving performance and productivity. Further, when people feel disconnected and that sense of “otherness” is allowed to proliferate, it also sets the stage for toxic work environments and petty fighting over resources that can sabotage productivity and sap creativity. Interpersonal connection is also a meaningful buffer against the effects of stress, and as we will discuss in an upcoming post, burnout is a real problem – for people and for organizations.

Organizational leaders need to be aware that this is a real risk that needs to be managed with growth. The solution, as with most problems, is obvious and simple but not always easy to implement: forge cohesiveness across the organization. Look for ways to connect employees – find avenues in which people can get to know one another personally. Promote shared values, vision, and mission to cultivate a sense of unity. Get leadership in front of people and not hiding in the c-suite. Like all “problems” of this nature, the solution needs to flow from the top, with executive leaders creating cohesive teams comprised of leaders who do the same – encouraging connections among people who identify with a larger purpose. Handled thoughtfully, supporting meaningful human connection in your organization can be a valuable tool for helping your organization thrive versus survive. What makes an organization a great place to work?  Wanting to spend time with the people inside it.