Why isn’t this personal?

Posted by on Jun 19, 2012

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We’ve probably all heard the old saying “this isn’t personal, it’s just business”…or some variation on that line. Usually, it’s dragged out when someone is about to be laid off, or a hostile takeover is being launched, or whatever, but the common theme always seems to be that someone is going to get hurt…and that soon-to-be damaged person is the one who is counseled not to take it personally.


Rick Auman is Executive Vice President, Executive Coaching. Rick leads the delivery of Healthy Companies’ executive coaching and advisory services.

I had the opportunity recently to talk with a leader who described exactly this scenario as he was about to go into a meeting with the “bean counters” who were going to recommend laying off over 750 employees to make their numbers look better for the Wall Street analysts. This leader was livid that the senior leaders of his organization weren’t really worried about the impact of a RIF on those 750 families, or on the rest of the organization; it was all about making the number look good for Wall Street…you see, it’s nothing personal.

But why isn’t our work life personal? We spend a huge part of our lives at work, we’re encouraged to throw ourselves body and soul into our assignments, we measure our level of commitment and engagement…How can our work not be personal? Aren’t we just kidding ourselves when we drag out this old line?

I think any leader who uses this line or any such variation on the theme is dodging the reality of organizational life and how tough it is to be a leader.

Work is personal. It’s that simple, and as coaches trying to help develop healthy leaders, I think it is our job to remind them of that reality, and help them figure out how to achieve the results they’re after KEEPING IN MIND that this is personal: there are people involved, and the decisions that leaders make have significant impact on those people every day. They are not cogs in a machine, they are people.

The leader I was talking to in the example above offered a different approach to the people issue.

His view: why not “re-purpose” those 750 people? Find them new, different jobs, but retain them instead of casting them out on the street. If they chose to take that approach, what would the impact on the workforce be? Perhaps their employees might actually start to believe that their leaders care about them, and then they might start becoming more committed and engaged, and productivity might rise (is there a down side here?)…and maybe the leaders will sleep better at night, knowing they did take their work personally, for the benefit of their whole organization.

And we all know getting plenty of sleep is important to our health…

Leave Rick your comments or questions and he’ll respond!

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33 Comments

  1. Dawn H.
    July 11, 2012

    Rick:

    This is an interesting perspective about taking our work personally. I hope more leaders embrace this concept and can offer a more “personal” perspective in similar situations — like the one referenced in your example. Not only will they sleep better at night, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll wake up the next morning with a greater sense of purpose — realizing that people do matter and how they value their employees contributes to a large part of their company’s success.

    So — I’m curious to know the end result of the organization’s decision referenced in your example. Was the leader successful in offering in his perspective?

  2. Jean-Yves Maillat
    July 10, 2013

    Rick,
    I fully agree with you. Bloomberg Business Week recently had two interesting articles, one about Costco where lowest paid employees are paid higher than what the competition pays and about twice the minimum wage and where the CEO is paid less than CEOs of the competitors, and another article about Caterpillar where staff salaries were reduced because “we have to stay competitive” while the CEO’s remuneration was increased. Is it surprising that there were strikes at Caterpillar? Would employees go on strike if they didn’t take it personally? Meanwhile, at Costco, employees stay much longer with the company than employees in similar companies and they are more committed. As a result, Costco is more successful than it’s competitors. So which approach serves the bottom line better, the one where you take it personally and treat your staff as an asset or the one where staff are treated as a cost and are expandable?

  3. Rick Auman
    July 10, 2013

    Thanks for your comment, Jean-Yves. You’ve rightly connected “getting personal” to the business case, which so often is missed! Our book, Grounded, coming out this fall, starts with this central point: leadership IS personal. Hope you’ll pick up a copy; we’ve love to hear your reactions once you’ve read it…

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