Familiarity Breeds Contempt  

Have you heard that expression – familiarity breeds contempt?  Have you ever thought about what it really means?  Well the obvious interpretation is that what you are familiarity with becomes less important.

For example – if you are the new girl/boy in the office, the last thing you want to do is upset anyone, am I right?  And so you would go to great pains to understand who sits where in the office, whose coffee cup is whose, that kind of thing.  Because you don’t want to invoke the wrath of khan (oh no that’s a star trek movie), well the wrath of anyone – especially the boss – by nicking their coffee cup on day 1.

However, fast forward to day 730.  Perhaps by then, understanding the lay of the land, you have worked out that the boss is a big softie and you can use his coffee mug for your guest without worrying about it.  Perhaps the boss isn’t very happy about it but he won’t say anything.

Familiarity breeds contempt.

However, there is another interpretation of that phrase, and it’s this.

Familiarity breeds contempt of the unfamiliar.

So, what does that mean?  Well, it means that it feels safer and therefore ‘better’ in the comfort zone of familiarity.  What is new feels uncomfortable and therefore ‘wrong’.  Just as someone coming in on day one with no concern for anyone else’s feelings, and using YOUR coffee cup, would feel wrong.  Sometimes anything ‘new’ is put in the same category.

And that’s when business’s often miss a trick.  The familiar might have been the best thing since sliced bread last year, but that doesn’t mean that this year, it still WILL be. And sometimes that something or somebody new will be the best thing that ever happened, if you can just take off your blinkers of familiarity.

Try not to see anything new as automatically ‘wrong’ and not ‘how we do things around here’.  Because, let’s face it, ‘how we used to do things around here’ included sticking a leech on you to drain your blood anytime you got ill, and we don’t still do that anymore!  Change is necessary, change is inevitable.  You can be ahead of the curve or behind the curve, but change will still happen anyway.

If you look on change with contempt, you will miss opportunities.  And just because someone is new, doesn’t mean their ideas aren’t valid or even the best idea.

Look at what happened to Yellow Pages when the internet came in.  I know someone who used to work there, and they tell me that voices within Yell at the time were pushing Yell to open up and be the new Google (before Google existed), but other voices thought that they could maintain the status quo but just online rather than in the real world.

Have you seen the size of a Yellow Pages directory now?  It’s like a leaflet.  And online?  Well, I don’t know their figures but they are not the new Google.  And they have had to change direction and become more about websites and SEO.

As a leader your job is to challenge the norm constantly and to listen to your people – new or established.  Not ALL change is perfect, but not changing, not adapting, not looking at things in a different way – well that is really the meaning of familiarity breeding contempt.

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