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
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:
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
"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
--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
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
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
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
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.