What’s Personal to You?

We’ve all heard this phrase, “It’s not personal. It’s just business.”

There are several things wrong with that saying. “Just” is a keyword that says, “Don’t look here, you won’t like it. Just ignore me…” (Here’s a writing tip: write a sentence with just in it and then when you edit, remove the just. What happens to the sentence?) That’s the smaller problem.

Here’s the big problem: I don’t know of any decision that’s not personal in business. Every business decision requires people to act and affects people. How can it not be personal?

When I hear something like, “It’s not personal; it’s just business,” I make these assumptions:

  • The other person is hiding behind the “business” part of this.
  • The other person is the winner and I’m the loser.
  • The other person might be afraid of my reaction, so claims that the context is the business.

I don’t buy the “just business” part.

I’ve had my own business for over 20 years. I’ve worked inside and with businesses for 40 years. I’ve learned several things in that time:

  • We might not like what we have to do at work. We hide behind the  business label.
  • We are afraid of what we have to do at work. We hide behind the business label. I’m thinking of giving change-focused feedback or laying people off or firing people. I didn’t like any of those. I did them because the business and team needs demanded I do so.
  • We don’t want to hurt people more than we have to.

I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. Yet, I have found more value in being honest and open with people than I have in hiding behind the “it’s just business” phrase.

What if we reframed this entire discussion? We have the needs of the business to provide feedback, to manage to a budget, to be responsible in any number of ways. And, we work with and through other people. At least, in my opinion, we attend to the needs of the people to be fair, honest, and open. And, for many of these decisions and discussions, we have legal concerns, too.

If we have an honest and open conversation as the situation changes (not postponing feedback, explaining that our financial position may lead to layoffs, or that a person’s behavior is unacceptable, we might not need the “it’s not personal” part of the phrase.

Feedback is personal. Explaining the financial situation of an organization affects each person individually. Having to fire someone is most definitely personal.

Let’s change how we have this conversation. For managers, it means being open and honest early, to provide feedback and guidance if you are worried about firing someone. For senior managers, it means being honest about the financial position of the organization and deciding how much of that to communicate when to employees. And, if you have to lay people off, to do it with grace and honesty.

As employees, it’s your job to be receptive to feedback and to learn how to provide and receive it. Maybe even eto ask for it. And, it’s your responsibility to monitor the organization’s financial health.

When people say “It’s just business,” they fool themselves.

That’s the question this week: What’s personal to you?

3 thoughts on “What’s Personal to You?

  1. Jim Grey

    Maybe it’s not either/or, but both/and.

    When I got laid off in 2015, on the one hand I knew it was just business — two quarters in a row of hitting less than 30% of plan means that the belt had to be tightened. They decided to consolidate engineering and testing under one leader, and that leader wasn’t going to be me. But when my boss came to my office in tears to tell me it was my last day, it was also personal. And the disruption in income I felt was absolutely personal.

    I start a new job on Monday. My last day at the old job was yesterday. When I went to say goodbye to the partners, one of them was clearly holding back a little agitation with me. I had normal work frustrations there, but overall it was a good place to work. But the new opportunity is compelling, and I couldn’t not take it. It wasn’t personal, but I imagine that partner may have experienced my exit as something of a rejection.

    1. johanna Post author

      Jim, thank you. I had not thought about when the manager feels as if it’s a rejection or personal. I guess I didn’t think about people leaving *me* as a manager. I wonder if I would have felt differently if I was a partner in the company. Thanks for providing another perspective.

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