It’s Not Just Business—It’s Personal

Few businesses are run without people. Not yet anyhow. (Robots, I know you are coming for us). But for now, until the day robots take over, business is fueled by the humans involved in the system.

I was at a recent team celebration after a huge project launch. Everyone was excited, and the collaborative, generous spirit came naturally. Our stakeholder gave a toast and reminded everyone that partnership was at the center of the project success. We celebrated not only the project, but how much everyone enjoyed working with one another. We all felt we owed a lot of the triumph of the partnership to the friendships and relationships that were built by working hard together, side by side.

Do you know what no one said? No one raised a glass, looked teammates in the eyes, and said, “This project succeeded because it’s just business.” And if anyone had, that person would have put down the glass without taking a sip and walked out.

Celebrating with people is personal. Eating and drinking with people is personal. Making tough decisions together with people is personal. Caring about joint outcomes is personal. Business is personal.

I’ve heard the phrase “it’s just business” too many times to count in my career. While the circumstances are always different, one universal theme is in common each time: People say “it’s just business” when they want an excuse to do something crappy. In every case, what the person meant was something like, “I am making a decision that is kind of a crappy thing to do, and I’d like not to be blamed for it.” Business is the shorthand for impersonal.

Now, don’t hear me wrong. When you are responsible for many people’s livelihoods and critical initiatives, you don’t get the luxury of being a pure humanitarian. As much as I often wish I could do only the things I know would make each person happy, it isn’t possible. Prioritizing the wants and desires of individual people above the needs of the greater good would in most cases make you a bad leader. So, yeah, business is tough and maybe even impartial. But business does not need to be impersonal.

As leaders, we need to take care not to speak out of both sides of our mouths. We can’t praise the benefits of collaboration, speak to the virtues of culture, honor the individuality of the talented humans in our employ, and also use the scapegoat of business to justify hard decisions.

You can find a way to get around this cheat phrase when you feel the urge to use it. If you feel like a statement or decision you are about to make is “just business” …

1. Ask yourself why you feel justified in the decision: There is likely a rational, unbiased thinking underlying the decision. Enumerate the reasons clearly, and likely you will find the greater good. Maybe it is something like, “The engineering department will continue to lose money on the project if we continue it, and other projects that are doing well will have to sacrifice their budgets to compensate.”

2. Ask yourself why you feel badly about it on a personal level: There is something in you as a human relating to other humans that understands this decision will affect people negatively. Maybe it is something micro like an important stakeholder who is going to be a loud complainer, or something macro where a whole crew of people could even lose their jobs as a result of the decision.

3. Look at your discomfort: What negative impacts are you avoiding? You should explore whether you have a fear of dealing with personal, fierce discussions. Maybe you don’t want to feel you are being blamed for the negative consequences, or you are worried your decision will be questioned.

4. Finally, after you understand the greater good justification, the potential negative consequences, and your own discomfort, address them all: Maybe it is a simple messaging exercise, and maybe it is a more robust plan to course correct or compensate for some of the issues.

As a leader, be brave enough to explore your decision making and honest enough to use your words to explain it. And the next time you have someone tell you “it’s just business,” ask the person to explain what that really means. Attributing only the ugly and hard parts of work or finance to business degrades it. Business is a beautiful, nuanced ecosystem, built on people and relationships. Good businesses and good leaders recognize this.