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Bad Career Advice: It’s Not Personal, It’s Business

This is post is part of my Bad Career Advice series in which I expose outdated, clichéd, and counterproductive advice for exactly what it is.

I blame Donald Trump for a great many things but let me also be clear: I have mucho respecto for the Trumpster. I mean, it isn’t just any man that can pull off that hair. And The Apprentice? Stroke of genius.
He also popularized “You’re fired!” which is easily the most annoying, over-used catchphrase to ever hit the water cooler. Which is a feat, albeit an irritating one.

But I place blame squarely on The Donald for promoting at least one ridiculously bad piece of career advice. I’m referring, of course, to his frequently repeated mantra, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” In my opinion, this is a completely absurd notion. Unless you work inside a vacuum with robots and not people. In which case, I’d love to visit your workplace sometime. Call me.

I have to assume that the vast majority of my readership indeed does NOT work with artificial intelligence. And thus, the idea that business is not personal has no place in the modern business environment.

Why It Doesn’t Work

This whole philosophy was designed to distance people from taking responsibility for their actions and how they affect others. It’s basically the equivalent of saying, “No offense” after hurling an insult. Of course it’s offensive! Telling me not to be offended doesn’t make it less so.

The idea that business isn’t personal simply provides justification for treating people poorly in the workplace. It attempts to devalue human interaction and the result is counter-productive. People who aren’t treated well inevitably won’t stick around. An article written by Jim Welch appeared in Workplace magazine, March 2008 and stated definitively that “the number one reason people leave jobs is because they fail to connect with their bosses as leaders and as people.”

As a former manager of mine used to say, “People don’t quit jobs, they quit people.” They quit because nothing is personal; it’s all business. You can’t pretend that the human connection is unimportant and you can’t use business as an excuse for personal failings.

This kind of separation mentality has bled throughout the business world.  In the name of “business,” all manner of ethical and moral transgressions can be absolved. Environmental pollution? No offense! Fudging the numbers? No big deal. It’s just business. I don’t have to take any personal responsibility for my actions.

This is a dangerous slippery slope to say the least.

The Alternative

Yes, there are times when tough decisions have to be made in the business world. But pretending that those decisions aren’t personal, that they won’t impact people in a very real way, is delusional. All business is personal. Businesses don’t operate inside a bubble. They’re a part of our society and a part of our communities. There are human consequences for business decisions. We must take this into account in the decision-making process, not simply ignore it.

This doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t ever have to make those hard decisions, liking having to fire someone. It just means that you’ll do so with empathy and compassion. You’ll recognize that the appropriate course of action for the business is one that will greatly impact the livelihood of the person. It certainly isn’t as easy as simply disconnecting yourself, but it’s the more responsible approach. And sometimes, allowing for this realization will inspire creative solutions. When real people are affected by an action, that action is more carefully evaluated. Alternatives are more thoroughly weighed.

Donald Trump is obviously a successful man. It would appear that his philosophy has worked well for him. But I’m not truly convinced that he believes his own words. I suppose it wouldn’t be the first time someone put on an act for the cameras. After all, his persona IS his business, which means for him, business is quite personal indeed.

Photo Credit: The Rochester Canine Playgroup (Flickr)

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12 Responses to “Bad Career Advice: It’s Not Personal, It’s Business”

  1. Joshua Noerr says:

    Chrissy, you are so right on here. People get a lot of fulfillment and identity from their jobs. They spend more time there than at home a lot of times. It would be impossible to seperate yourself from work completely, and even if you could, that would probably make you the type of disengaged employee no one wants.

    Great post, cheers.

  2. Well, I agree with you and with Mr. Trump. Business is personal because we are dealing with real people, but in order for a business to succeed we have to also get into our work mode and stop taking everything so personal. I have worked with people who get so bogged down with personal feelings that the day ends up being very unproductive, but then again I have worked with others who are so businesslike I have felt invisible with no value and my opinions don’t seem to matter. There has to be a balance between the two.
    Great post and I hope Mr. Trump is watching :)

  3. Chrissy says:

    Thanks for stopping by guys!

    @Joshua – I completely agree that people get a huge sense of identity from work. It’s partly the culture of the world we live in — When you first meet someone, they almost always ask “What do you do?” Complete separation from work would definitely = disengagement.

    @Patricia – GREAT point. I wish I had addressed that in the post. There is definitely a fine line with this. Treating work as a personal thing doesn’t mean taking everything personally. You’re still there to do a job and business has to be conducted. You can’t get so absorbed that you see every little decision as a personal statement about you. I think it comes down to the culture of the workplace and the individual’s personality. Some people are just victims and they’ll always believe that they’re being attacked. But if the culture is one where people feel they are being treated as humans and not merely cogs in the business machine, I think there will be less of a chance that they will overreact and feel personally attacked over little things.

  4. Amber Sosa says:

    Great read! I especially like how you linked making the hard decisions with the need to have empathy and compassion. I feel this is how an individual can actually successfully walk the fine line of being personal and professional.
    Thanks for the great post!

  5. Chrissy, I love this post – and the Bad Career Advice motif, too.

    It’s important to find that line, between personal and business. Because you may quit people, but you work jobs – a delicate balance. I think regarding people as individuals is important (especially for managers), yet we all have a duty to moderate our “feelings” in the workplace – and to understand constructive criticism. It is hard for young people, sometimes, to discover how to strike that balance.

  6. Hi Chrissy

    Good stuff here, I’m not gonna lie as I wanted to quickly comment on the “gray areas” of firing someone while reading half way through your article, until I saw your section, “the alternative.”

    You bring up very valid points to which I can only agree with.

    It’s obvious you have much experience as a writer, I actually felt like I was reading one of those like-able articles displayed on Yahoo’s front page.

    I look forward to reading more,

    –Parker

  7. Chrissy says:

    @Amber – Yes, compassion and empathy. Those are the keys and they are so often missing. Thanks for stopping by!

    @Lindsey – I love the comment that you “may quit people but you work jobs”. It IS a delicate balance. And yes, moderating feelings is a huge part of it. I’m working on a post about that for the future so stay tuned!

    @Parker – Thank you for the kind words about my writing! I’m glad you were thinking of questions that I eventually answered in the post. That’s makes me happy!!

    Thanks to everyone for sharing your comments!!

  8. I agree with you about not being able to Complete separation work from home. We spend 40 hours a week or more at work it is so important to make sure our career is something we enjoy.

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