The common phrase ‘Familiarity Breeds Contempt’ is a familiar dictum to many managers and leaders, who have had this concept drilled into them since their earliest days of MBA school and management training. I’ve heard it from family members, teachers and employers. Indeed I am sure you can can recall horror stories about bad managers who lost control of their authority by becoming too familiar with their juniors and people they were meant to be leading.
So a crucial leadership question is, does the familiarity really breed contempt? If it does, how does the leader maintain the perfect balance (the so called Goldilock’s Syndrome) where he/she has to get it just right level of familiarity? Is less more which would offer camaraderie and also avoid the potential contempt by the subordinate? In the first decade of the 20th century, an obscure British journalist came up with a newer version of the phrase. His name was Holbrook Jackson, and he was pretty well known among the journalistic intelligentsia of the time. He said,
Familiarity breeds not contempt, but indifference
The far better known (both at the time and subsequently) Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton’s had a particular preference for paradox, and was never hospitable to platitudes. Chesterton adds to the Jackson quotation, with an acidic,
But it can breed surprise. Try saying ‘Boots’ ninety times.
Excellent, and worth a try! Benjamin Franklin went further (not in a management sense) and proposed that fish and visitors have something in common. Both begin to stink after 3 days. The present research offers empirical support for Franklin’s quip. The more people learn about others (and anyone who has had houseguests knows all too well how much one can come to know in a short time) the less they like them, on average.
The present neuroscience research shows that although people believe that learning more about others leads to greater liking, more information about others leads, on average, to less liking. It seems ambiguity (i.e. lacking information about another) leads to liking, whereas familiarity—acquiring more information—can breed contempt. This less is more effect is due to the cascading nature of dissimilarity. Once evidence of dissimilarity is encountered, subsequent information is more likely to be interpreted as further evidence of dissimilarity, leading to decreased liking.
The evidence seems to be on the whether familiarity always breeds contempt, is that it depends on a variety of factors. However is seems that familiarity can breed contempt, more often than does not. To give some hard evidence and big data for this theory, Sirota Consulting, they surveyed and looked at employee job satisfaction of 1.2 million employees at 52 companies over 30 Years. According to Sirota’s research there is a significant decline in overall job satisfaction after an employee has been working with an employers for an average of six months or more.
The leaders who always maintained a safe distance with subordinates at all times, so that those employees did not cross the line of respect, earned more respect. It certainly involved non-transparency from leader in various matters, but the show still went on successfully. There were absolutely no complaints, even though the annual raises were poor and performance ratings were below average. The subordinates often praised the leader, and even justified the low raises as not being the leader’s fault (Stockholm syndrome )
It seems the leaders who offered total transparency and camaraderie to their subordinates, often found some of their subordinates being disrespectful and deceitful towards them, despite their good deeds and commitment to employee development and promotion. interestingly there were complaints from employees who always received good raises, but received only one time low raise and below average rating (which was fair and just because of the subordinate’s poor performance).
The 4 things that seem to matter most are (and are regarded as being savvy):
- Equity – to be treated fairly
- Achievement – to be proud of the job and company
- Confidentiality – knowing when not to share
- Camaraderie – to have good, productive relationships with fellow employees
It always makes sense in keeping the correct and careful balance in maintaining professional relationship between the leader and the subordinate at all times. Socialising with those we lead is to be cautioned, for it can most probably lead to contempt and loss of respect. Nonetheless, the leader can still opt to socialise with subordinates at company functions or special occasions, yet always maintaining the socialisation at arms-length.
In summary there is no doubt that familiarity can breed contempt, but the savvy manager must understand how to develop a working camaraderie without crossing-the-line into revealing personal details. The last word and best insight on this Familiarity Breeds Contempt story comes from Mark Twain, who said it most appropriately:
Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.