Nothing Personal

By Chuck Violand

April 24, 2017

A comment that’s gained traction with business owners and managers when they’re about to make a decision that will negatively impact someone’s life is “it’s nothing personal; it’s just business.” I’ve heard this expression used when dealing with employees, customers, and even family members in the business. The phrase is uttered like it’s an anesthetic to numb the hurt of a painful decision. Despite the statement, I’m convinced that most business decisions are intensely personal.

If we accept the commonly used refrain that people are a business’s greatest asset, then how can business decisions not be personal? What do we do when something positive happens, like landing a big contract? Typically, we celebrate … together.

Scratch the surface and we discover that many businesses were started and built by their owners because of very personal reasons. We’re motivated by the need to prove parents, teachers, or sometimes complete strangers how wrong they were in their assessments of us. We grow successful businesses to overcome an impoverished upbringing. We draft competitive strategies around settling scores with those we feel slighted us or stole a loyal customer. Getting even with “them” sounds personal to me.

We expect our workers to be loyal, passionate, and committed to our company’s mission. We encourage them to take initiative in their jobs and to make decisions as if they own the place. Since when are loyalty, passion, and commitment not personal qualities? We spend countless hours carefully nurturing company cultures that are reflections of people’s attitudes and beliefs.

Straight out of college, a colleague of mine worked for a very large, multi-national company. After a successful twenty years, he and many of his co-workers were let go in a departmental shakeup. I can just imagine that the sentiment “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business” was bantered around by the decision makers. That was in the 90s, but to this day, he still spits the name of his former employer when it comes up in conversation. Nothing personal? Just business? Not to him.

We can try to de-humanize business decisions all day long. But, at the end of the day, businesses are staffed by human beings who have emotions and feelings.
In my opinion, too many small business owners try to hide behind the mantra of “it’s just business” in an attempt to soften the impact of the decisions they make or to rationalize those decisions to make themselves feel better about them.

Does this mean that company leaders should never make decisions that will negatively impact their people? Absolutely not. Leading a business is hard, and it can get messy. Conflicting interests can cause the line between a good decision and a bad one to blur. Tough conversations need to take place. Tougher decisions need to be made, and sometimes people we care about get hurt by those decisions. Their lives and careers get turned upside down. And, while those decisions still need to be made, we would do ourselves and those who work for us a huge favor by recognizing and preparing for the personal impact those decisions may have, rather than hiding behind a sentiment that is patently false. Because business is personal.