Contempt in the Workplace

It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt. This is certainly true. But today I want to talk about a place in which this age-old maxim is far from helpful. The workplace.

If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, you’ve certainly seen – and perhaps participated in – some of the myriad political discussions and arguments that take place there. To me, this sparring serves no other purpose than to create excitement, as when rooting for one’s team. Very little learning goes on. It’s as if the game never ends, but continues into extra innings until everyone simply walks away out of exhaustion.

This comes as a result of embracing not myopia (nearsightedness), but MYopia: blindness to any perspective but one’s own. The result? Conflict. It’s impossible to choose the physical eyesight your DNA dictates, but it is entirely possible to choose the figurative perspective from which you view the world.

How we see the world is based on our personal experiences, understanding, education and nurturing. This perspective is unique unto each person. So are our perspectives of race, gender, ethnicity and political persuasion. But we all have trouble seeing the world without looking through our own spectacles — our own perspectives, biases and viewpoints.

It is difficult enough for us to identify our own biases, and nearly impossible to discern  the deep-seated perspectives of our co-workers. One person has problems with authority. Another has trouble working with men. Still another sees herself as unacceptable to others. We all have unique perspectives about political, racial and moral issues.

You see, each of these aspects is an opportunity for friction in the workplace. And it is because of this friction that the game must stop. We otherwise risk intolerance, derision, division and disenfranchisement among the staff.

In the arena of perspectives there is no “game” to be played and won. “The only winning move,” concedes the arms-race computer in the 1983 sci-fi classic War Games, “is not to play the game.”

In fact, it is not an arena in which we find ourselves. It is a classroom.

Division is often the result of ignorance – a simple lack of understanding. Understanding, trust and respect come from familiarity: getting to know, and actively understanding each other. Ignorance doesn’t take any effort. Understanding does.  Perhaps that’s one reason many in the workplace have trouble getting along.

Don’t you be one of them.

Make it your goal to sit with the opposing team. Listen to their viewpoints. Stop talking. Don’t argue. Yearn to understand their thinking. See them as mysteries, not  rivals. And be understanding of their biases. You have them, too.

These challenging relationships in the workplace are not unique, but unlike social relationships, one cannot easily escape them. So don’t try to.

Familiarity breeds contempt? No. Familiarity breeds insight.   Get your head out of the game. Sit in the other bleachers. Try to see the game with new eyes until it develops into a new and interesting relationship.


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