It is a phrase most often used in relationship to language usage, but when coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky, he defined it much more broadly as “the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”
Here are two interesting language examples:
• You might think that the use of the single-word sentence “Not!” to negate the previous idea came from the 1980’s (or maybe Wayne’s World). Not! Its use in that way dates back to at least 1860.
• You might think that the use of the word “high” to imply “mentally affected by drugs”, came from the 1960’s. We’d both be wrong. There are examples documented as early as 1932 for that usage, and if we want to use the word in connection to a similar result from alcohol, the examples go back to 1627.
My purpose here isn’t to make you newly minted language experts, though those examples are pretty interesting; my purpose is broader and deeper than that.
When we think something is new, we treat it as new, and therefore miss a tremendous amount of context, study and facts that might help us understand this “new” thing. Here are some ways we mess this up, to the detriment of ourselves, our results, and our teams (and how to fix it).
We Create “the Flavor of the Month”
I know that phrase probably makes you cringe. We all think that others are guilty of this, but in part because of the recency illusion, we do it to others without knowing it. We read a book with new ideas in it that we earnestly think can change things in our organization. While there is nothing wrong with that, the problem comes in how we present it – often as the “new” idea. The idea might be packaged effectively, the idea might be exactly what your organization needs to implement, but the way you share it, and the way you incorporate it into the work and culture of your organization can get in your way.
Consider the new, but look for the connections to the known and the tried and true. When people see those connections, they will support the “new” thing more, and it will be more successful too.
We Miss the Context of History
You’ve heard the phrases “history repeats itself” and “everything old is new again”, right?
There is a reason.
They are correct.
As leaders, we owe it to our teams to understand the history of our company, our competitors, our industry and our professional discipline. If you don’t, you will miss the context and treat everything as “new.” Sometimes the “new” didn’t work five times before, or sometimes it did, for a while. Wouldn’t it be far better to know all of that so that you make more informed and educated decisions?
You may not have loved history in school, but you need to love it now, if you want to lead at the highest levels.
We Ignore Our Elders
I grew up being told to respect my elders, and I think I generally do. I’m suggesting you do more than that. I’m suggesting that you get to know them, build relationships with them, and ask them about their experience. I know this is similar to the point above, but it is important enough to discuss separately.
Listen to the experience of your long time team members. Listen to the industry veterans. Listen to your parents. Ask, listen, and then connect their experiences to your situations. They may not have had a Smartphone or Twitter, but they have relevant experience.
Value and apply what you learn from them.
As leaders, we must create a broader and higher perspective in order to lead successfully. Creating more historical context and connecting previous ideas to the changes you are proposing or leading today is critical to your success.
In other words, be aware of, and be careful of the recency illusion.

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