“Don’t Take It Personally” Is Terrible Work Advice


I was recently working with a leader who had just lost a much-valued employee to a competitor. He had invested a large amount of time in mentoring and training the person and had high hopes and expectations for his career. The employee was someone clearly identified as “top talent” within the company — and what’s more, the resignation came as a complete surprise. The team leader was feeling let down and annoyed.

“I guess the conclusion I have come to,” he said, “is that I just mustn’t take this personally.”

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.

Work is the place where I’m going to spend the bulk of my waking hours — indeed, the bulk of my life — and yet I’m not supposed to take it personally? I should accept the idea that the bulk of my life from twenty something to sixty something is somehow not personal?
While I fully understand that by “not taking it personally” we are better able to protect ourselves in work contexts that can often be challenging, threatening, and relentless, there are benefits to making our work, leadership, and followership personal.

The first relates to success and well-being at work. Take a moment and think about the people you’ve encountered whom you consider inspired, energized, and successful. They probably take work personally. And the flip side is that the people who have depersonalized their work are probably not the people you have enjoyed working with. Your own experience thus indicates that success seems to be linked to taking your work personally.

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