(by Richard Segal, as appeared at SegalConsultingBiz.com)
One of our most common catch phrases these days is, “It’s not personal.” I’m not sure what that means, or where it came from? It seems to be some action taken by someone else that clearly affects your life, but you aren’t supposed to take it personally. Anything that affects your life is very personal. Interestingly, the phrase is only used when something negative happens … you never hear something like, “Good job, here’s your bonus check…but it’s not personal.”
More likely you hear, “Sorry, I’m going to have to lay you off … but it’s not personal.” What is it then, if not personal? Does it mean that it’s not your fault? Maybe. “Business is down and we have to cut back. You were the last hire, so we decided, based on that, you’d be the first to go.” You probably didn’t do anything wrong, but you aren’t sure. Maybe the seniority was just an excuse to make it easy. It is personal because it affects your livelihood, and what’s more personal than that?
We all understand the words, and the obvious definition is that “it is not about you.” And that begs a question – who is it about then? Sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, if you are part of a mass layoff, it probably isn’t about you. But, if you are part of a small group or the only person laid off, it would be almost impossible to believe that it isn’t personal. When your employer says that it is the job being terminated not the person, you say you understand, and take the pink slip to collect unemployment. And all the while you think to yourself, “What did I do wrong?”
Making a statement like, “it’s not personal” might even emphasize the personal nature of decisions.
“It’s not personal” is an easy way to prevent any kind of pushback. It’s a door closer – no further discussion needed … sayonara … The End!
Perhaps it is the end. If the situation is a non-family business, then it is likely the end. We may never need to cross paths again. If it’s a family business, and the interaction is between family members, then it is personal – very personal – and it doesn’t get dismissed with a catch phrase.
Imagine a parent saying to a child during an annual evaluation, “Sorry, we have fallen short of our performance goals this year so there won’t be any raises or bonuses – but, it’s not personal.” In the next breath, “I’ll see you at dinner Sunday.”
How about two siblings discussing job performance when one says to the other, “I think the job is too big for any one person and I am seeing some things that are slipping through the cracks. It’s not personal, but I think we need to revamp your job description.” She then gives tasks once yours to your subordinate with a raise and a promotion. With Thanksgiving around the corner, you are already plotting how to stay away from that sister.
Envision this exchange: “It’s not personal, but your son isn’t CEO material. I think our best plan would be to wait until my daughter finishes her MBA, gets her sea legs, and then she can step in. In the meantime we should continue business as usual.”
“Of course it’s personal, I don’t think you’ve ever give my kid a chance. He has performed extremely well for the past 10 years. I understand that he doesn’t have the education you daughter does, but he has learned from experience and the ‘school of hard knocks.’ I’m not sure what you have against him, but you’ve always minimized his progress. I think it’s really more about you and me than our kids. And it’s very personal – always has been.”
It is impossible to eliminate the family dynamics from the family business. Family dynamics come with the territory and baggage. The pink elephant in the room is often the unspoken personal background superimposed on decision making. Making a statement like “it’s not personal” might even emphasize the personal nature of decisions.
There is another side to the personal family dynamics that is always a fear for non-family employees. “So sorry, but I’m going to have to let you go. My son is graduating and joining the company. Here’s a severance package for your review. I hope that you understand – it’s not personal.”
Eliminating the one-on-one or unilateral nature of decision making in the family business will diminish the personal pain often felt. Here are some suggestions to overcome the personal aspects of decision making in the family enterprise:
- Large strategic issues should be made by a board of directors (or advisors) that includes non-family outsiders to add objectivity. This should include c-suite performance evaluations and compensation.
- Entry and career path protocols should be digested to a written form after discussion and ratification by stakeholders.
- Compensation for family employees should be at fair market value as determined by some objective formula.
- Performance evaluations and compensation should be by a committee of at least three, including non-family and even outsiders. Clear metrics should be established. Family members need to be included in the company’s performance evaluations.
- Daily tactical decisions should follow org chart mapping. Allowing family to bypass standard protocol because of the family relationship should be avoided.
- Semi-retirement/retirement should be a clearly defined situation in terms of job description, compensation and company perks.
- The path to ownership needs to be clearly defined.
You should eliminate the phrase “it’s not personal” from your repertoire. Adding objectivity as suggested in the best practices above will help eradicate the phrase.