Most of us have heard the phrase “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” I’ve had it said to me a few times, and for much of my career I’m not sure that I saw anything wrong with the concept. Don’t leaders and managers sometimes have to make hard decisions that have the potential to have a negative impact on people? As I’ve matured and grown as a leader I’ve come to believe that this phrase always indicates a situation where the person saying it knows that their decision is wrong and would be embarrassed by their thinking if they needed to defend their decision in a public way. The decision maker is simply looking for a way to justify their decision by coating it with a veneer of ”but it makes good business sense.”
This doesn’t mean that hard decisions shouldn’t be made. Sometimes an employee needs to be fired. Sometimes a division needs to be closed. Sometimes you will choose a different vendor or business partner. But never lose track of the motives that cause you to make a decision. And don’t fool yourself into believing that your business life and personal life are truly separate boxes with separate rules.
The phrase “it’s nothing personal” has become so clichéd that many of us might realize we shouldn’t actually say it out loud since it’s often a clue that our decision has become personal or that the decision might embarrass us or contradicts values we claim to hold in our personal life. But I’ve come to believe that often many of us make decisions governed by this line of reasoning. The best leaders understand that there are always people on the other side of their decisions. The best people don’t allow themselves to make suspect decisions under a veil of “it’s only business.”
The technology consultant in me likes to avoid painting myself into a box by using words like always and never. I like to joke that the correct answer to any first question is ”it depends.” I suppose that there might be a circumstance where “It’s nothing personal” might be a perfectly reasonable thing to say.
However, I honestly can’t think of one. Can you?