“It’s Not Personal, It’s Just Business”—Where Do You Stand?


One of the most perplexing questions in business is how to think about people.  On the one hand, we realize that we need each other if our organizations are to achieve what the founders, current leaders, and employees—people all—wish to achieve.

We are reminded that there is no “I” in team, and that all great achievements come at the hands of people working together.  We read company values statements that say, “People are our greatest asset.”  A personal approach.

On the other hand, we are implored to “get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus.” It sounds so simple.  We’re told to hire slow (to ensure we have the right people on the bus) but fire fast (when we decide someone shouldn’t be on the bus.) An impersonal approach.

Leaders’ persistent ambivalence about people—and subsequent impact on motivation—was writ large at a global manufacturing company recently.  By any measure, the company has fallen on hard times.  Even after several rounds of layoffs, it is still wrestling with the right formula for success.  After another setback, the COO implored the employees to “take the [issue] personally” requiring some staff to return to working at company offices instead of home offices because the company needed “all hands on deck.”

That sounds reasonable.  The COO wants the employees to really feel it.  But, consider that those employees had survived years of deep and painful layoffs, so they most likely had been really feeling it for years.  The question is whether that approach will engender deep commitment.

Leaders imploring employees to take it personally at one time but not at another time may seem insensitive and one-sided.  Our research into employee motivation reveals employees have a need for warm and supportive relationships that are balanced, rooted in fairness, and free from ulterior motives.  In other words, just like when we were in grade school, no one wants to feel used.

Where do you stand?

Where do you stand on the “it’s not personal, it’s just business” belief?  What links do you see between your beliefs about business and your employees’ motivation?

Senior leaders—indeed, every leader—would do well to recognize the inherently personal, interconnected, and human dimensions of work and organizational life.  When senior leaders implore employees to take it personally only when it suits them, they increase the likelihood that those employees will see the senior leaders—and the company—with the same kind of ambivalence.  In that case, the negative cycle of “it’s not personal, it’s just business” continues—and never ends.  We should be careful not to blame employees for that, though.  After all, they learned it from their leaders.

About the author:

The Motivation Guy  (also known as Dr. David Facer)  is one of the principal authors—together with Susan Fowler and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop.

15 thoughts on ““It’s Not Personal, It’s Just Business”—Where Do You Stand?

  1. I have always maintained it is unreasonable to take the approach of not personal, just business. I even posted a video about it and will gladly send the link if anyone asks, but didn’t want to seem like I was spamming here.

    You spend 1/3 of every weekday, and sometimes also weekends, at work. How can it not be personal? How can you manage to put aside the personal aspects of you for 1/3 of your day? You can’t and without the personal side of you, you also can’t be optimally effective for your organization.

    I think the company you mentioned had the wrong approach only because I think it tried to cloak a policy change in a positive message of “let’s band together”.

  2. Of course business is personal. Understanding that can only make us better leaders. We are emotionally tied to business. We only tell ourselves that we are not to try to make ourselves feel better when we have to do the difficult things. We are all part of a team but also individuals. They can’t be separated.

  3. Everything in business is personal. Leaders lead based on their reputation. Are they intelligent, competent, their character. Everything you do creates a personal legacy. So hiring right, thoroughly explaining job expectations, coaching, and keeping or separating from employees if done right is personal… builds your personal reputation. Done wrong is a personal failure.

  4. Business is Personal. I spent the first 15 years of my career in commercial finance, being told “this is business, not personal” however came to realize that the best business plan, strategy means NOTHING if the people side is not aligned. You don’t have a successful business without a successful and personal business relationship. I am so passionate about this belief I am writing a book on the very topic!

  5. I think it is important to ‘depersonalise’ the decision making process to make sure the right decisions are made for the business. However, when executing these decisions, it is important to support your people through the process in a planned, quick, personal way.

    • “Congratulations on your promotion. It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Any comments as to why this phrase has never been uttered to mark an accomplishment?

  6. It is not personal. It is very personal.
    I communicate to my team in a jokingly matter by saying; “It’s not personal. We are only putting a roof over our heads by the decisions we are making. And oh by the way, clothes on our children and food in their mouths. You better take it personal.”
    Our existence depends on us taking our leadership personal. We pledge to guard our business for each other and lead like owners when we are present in the business. Our pledge is to protect each other’s income through our leadership.

  7. Indeed, it is deeply personal! It’s personal for the person/people on the receiving end of decisions made by those given the sacred trust to grow and preserve the organization for generations to come, and for those making the decisions. Finding the right way forward that is best for all involved, for all ‘constituents’ of the decision and its implications, requires the wisdom that comes from the paradigm of stewardship not just the boldness that comes from a paradigm of ownership.

    I believe that understanding, believing in, and applying the ethic of stewardship transforms the way we lead and manage people. I believe stewardship is the “difference that makes a difference.”

    When I use the word “Stewardship”, what I mean is this: To care for like something precious, to tend like a garden, to protect like treasure, to increase the value of something as if it is one’s own family legacy, to unleash the potential of like a diamond out of coal, and to release that to the next generation with a blessing like a great mentor would.

    To be the leader in an organization requires a balance of stewardship; stewardship of the brand, of the future potential, the current structure, and most of all, the human beings who create the value in each and every system of the thing.

    Imagine how the ethic of stewardship can transform the way you lead people and the way you manage systems. Think of how everyone involved can collaborate, or even better, can co-create the best outcome together.

    Thank you, Blanchard Leaderchat, for opening the conversation on this essential subject.


  8. It’s only personal when we make it so. As managers we must allow our staff to breath, to take time off for their family, to appreciate all their efforts with a hard earned vacation. Business, for most “line-employees” is not their life, it’s their job/career. We can make it business…but at the expense of being personal.

  9. Business is really “Busy-ness.” In business we are engaged in the act of being busy. Those who say, “It is not personal, it is just business,” are really saying they are too busy to care about relationships that drive their business. This helps them to keep it impersonal. Through caring and building relationships as a leader, business becomes personal.

  10. “This is business, not personal.” I think it’s all about perspective and most importantly, context. This not saying don’t be personal. It is a given that one cannot have a successful business without personal business relationships. It is however saying, look at every situation or business decision, especially contentious ones, with a keen eye on what’s truly best for the business (business first) and leave personal egos (personal preferences) out of the equation – this is of course unless the personal preference is actually what’s best for the business. In fact, best to better business decisions are usually made collaboratively and not from an individual frame. Truth be told, some take business decisions so personal that they are left with a chip on their shoulder. In that context, it’s business, not personal.

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