“It’s Not Personal, It’s Business”: Duncan Coombe, PhD, Disagrees.

In a 2016 article from the Harvard Business Review, Duncan Coombe, PhD in Organizational Behavior and Leadership, discusses his disagreement over this oft used cliché masquerading as sound business and leadership advice.

Coombe tells the story of a team leader who spent a lot of time and effort mentoring a team member only to suddenly loose the team member to a competing company, completely out of the blue. The conclusion the team lead comes to is that he shouldn’t take it personally.

In response Coombe writes:
“It’s a sentiment we have all often heard in work contexts: “Don’t take it personally” or “Hey, it’s not personal, it’s business.” I’ve heard it said about feedback, conflict, difficult conversations, restructuring, losing deals, collaboration, dealing with career ups and downs – all kinds of daily workplace issues.

And yet it’s an absurd idea.

Coombe posits that we spend a lot of time at work. That most of us will spend 40-50 years at work, yet the prevailing aphorism tells us we shouldn’t take it personally. Coombe discusses that, yes, not taking it personally can make difficult situations like the one he describes easier to handle, but that are benefits to “making our work, leadership, and followership personal.”

Coombe believes that the people who have made their work personal are the one’s who we consider to be inspired, energized and successful. While those who depersonalize their work are likely not those who we’ve enjoyed working with. Coombe suggest we take a look at our own anecdotal experiences and judge for ourselves.

He goes on to write that, “this is not just about nuanced language and personal psychology; it is also about real business results.” Coombe makes a direct, positive connection between engagement and business performance. He asks, “What is engagement if not “taking it personally”?” He also notes that “Not taking it personally” is at the center of many corporate ethics scandals. That “mindless notion” that “It’s not personal, it’s business” allows business people and leaders to disengage from their responsibilities as guardians of our planet and protectors of their employees, customers and communities.

Though Coombe does warn that one still needs to manage their boundaries – that one should not attach so much of their self-worth to their work that they become psychologically vulnerable to where every mistake and mishap damages one’s self-worth. Finding a balance is key.

Coombe ends by writing:
“Yes, if you take work personally, you will get hurt along the way. You will be disappointed, be let down, and sometimes wonder if it is worth it. But just like that other great mystery of life – being in love – what really is the alternative? To not love at all so as to never be heartbroken? Surely not. To not take it personally so as to never be disappointed? Surely not.

For your own sake, and for the people who work with you, this is your life. Take it – all of it – personally.”