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Don Burleson Blog 








Does familiarity breed contempt?

Management Tips by Donald Burleson


Familiarity breeds contempt.  This is a familiar dictum to many managers, 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, and there are plenty of horror stories about bad managers who lost control of their authority by becoming too familiar with their underlings.


We need look no further than the popular TV show "The Office" to see that too much personal fraternization and familiarity will lead to employee contempt, regardless of the talent or ineptitude of the manager.  It's only human nature, the innate tendency to compare yourself to other people and understand why the manager is "worthy" of a position of power. 


In a nutshell, the "Familiarity Breeds Contempt" concept is the idea that, the more we get to know a supervisor on a personal level, the more likely we are to find fault with them.  The term "familiarity breeds contempt" dates back at least 100 years, and this belief is widely noted as an absolute truth, even by famous authors:

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. - Mark Twain

A brief history of non-fraternization


The US armed forces has long required non-fraternization between officers and enlisted men, including any fraternization between members of their families.  Growing up as an Air Force brat, my mother and I had to be very careful when socializing to ensure that we did not inadvertently fraternize with an enlisted family and I was taught that I was barred from dating the daughter of an enlisted person, no matter how hot she might be.


Part of the military insistence on non-fraternization is related to the belief that familiarity breeds contempt, but the non-fraternization rules also reflect the military society requirement that the underlings follow orders immediately and without question.  The US Army regulations (Pamphlet 600-35) notes that fraternization is not merely discouraged, it's a criminal offense:

"Historically, a relationship between two soldiers having a detrimental effect on the authority of the senior has generally been regarded as "fraternization."


The Manual for Courts-Martial (1995), part IV, paragraph 83, defines the criminal offense of fraternization. These elements are required for the crime:

--commissioned or warrant officer.

--fraternization on terms of military equality with members known to be enlisted.

--fraternization must violate a custom of the Army.

--conduct must be prejudicial to good order and discipline or bring discredit on the armed forces."


The history of management non-familiarity


In the earliest days of the USA, the American Revolution military men discovered that a non-disclosure policy was  better publicity that their real-world persona.  For example, George Washington had a childish habit of throwing hysterical temper tantrums in combat, cursing like a stable boy and even threatening to kill his own men!


According to David McCullough in his outstanding book "1776", Gen. Washington had a very guarded personality and he preferred to cultivate his legend rather than the less flattering reality of his wanting management style.


In reality, George Washington was said to be under-educated with an inferiority complex, replete with a false sense of arrogance and grandiosity.  Worse yet, when under stress he presented himself as aloof, immature and deeply insecure.  If the truth were known in the day, George Washington might have been mocked as a 18th century Dilbert-style pointy-hared boss.


Fraternization in 21st century management


I've been a technical supervisor/manager for over 20 years and I have had to mentally clarify the "familiarity breeds contempt" dictum.  A successful manager must foster camaraderie without becoming too familiar, not an easy task for any executive.  Personally, I think that the degree of fraternization with subordinates depends on several factors:

People Factors and fraternization:

  • The weenie manager - If the manager is a wiener, the less interaction, the better.  Conversely, a more outstanding manager can fraternize more without risk of contempt from underlings.  Managers who are not worthy of their position must be far more careful.

  • The sycophants - There are some insecure "sycophant" employees who have a deep-seated need to know their manager on a personal level  These employees will stalk their manager, Googling them and attempting to become familiar with them, in order to feel that they have some power in the employer-employee relationship.

Organizational factors and fraternization:

  • Type of professional relationship - A subordinate relationship between two white collar professionals is often less susceptible to contempt than the relationship between a blue-collar worker and a white collar manager.

  • Type of Fraternization - While most managers agree that socializing with underlings is never a good idea, in some cases, the fraternization can actually foster respect.  For example, you may socialize with your subordinates at company functions, but always at arms-length. 

Personal disclosure and subordinate contempt


There is quite a bit of talk about the management "mystique", and disclosure of personal details.  Subordinates are always looking to their management as leaders and disclosures about religion, politics and social mores are never a good idea.  In most large corporations, executives are very careful only to disclose favorable personal details such as charitable acts.


In this article titled "Familiarity breeds contempt as bad managers rule roost", we see that managers must balance the need to remain unfamiliar while still maintaining a "camaraderie" with their employees.


Politics and personal disclosure


In an open political race it's often impossible to prevent voters from becoming overly-familiar with the polls, much to their detriment.  I remember when Gary Hart was ousted from the presidential race for an illicit affair and the old joke went:

"What's the difference between a democrat and a republican?"  (Answer: Republicans give their hearts to Bush, while Democrats give their bushes to Hart).

Private Corporations and over-familiarity


The problem is employee contempt is exacerbated in family-owned corporations where the children  of the owners are groomed to take over their enterprise, regardless of their worthiness. 


Paternalism is required in large wholly-owned businesses, as the children are the rightful owners of the enterprise, and many of these companies fast-track junior through the mid-level management ranks, with the bad side-effect that an overly-friendly family member may loose all respect from their subordinates.


Non-family managers are passed-over to make room for the children of the company owners, and this contempt is amplified when the family member is not careful to closely guard their personal life.


The smart management approach to fraternization


I've had cases where an employee will "push" their relationship, in an attempt to "buddy-up", and these types of sycophants will often cross the line to inappropriate familiarity, calling their supervisor "buddy" and acting chummy. 


In these cases, the employee needs to be dressed-down quickly and politely, explaining that you like them, but they can never be friends.


In sum, there is no doubt that familiarity breeds contempt, but the savvy manager must understand how to develop a working camaraderie without crossing-the-line into revealing personal details.



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