We do business with people (people that we know, like and trust). We spend time building strong relationships with co-workers and other partners. We want them to share in a common purpose and values. We hire for “fit”. We spend time and money on “team building” activities to develop relationships in order to make our team function well. We do all of this because we know that business is personal.
But when those same relationships come to an end—either because of issues with performance, or simply because of a project that didn’t work out—I often hear folks whip out the old saw: “It’s just business, nothing personal.” I’ve said it more than once when I had to lay someone off; but when I heard someone say it this week it suddenly sounded all wrong!
How does it sound to you?
What goes on in your head when someone says, “Nothing personal, it’s just business…“? Instinctively, I brace myself to hear something terrible like, “…we’re letting you go.” Makes sense, right? Because, let’s face it, no one ever says, “It’s not personal, it’s just business—we’re giving you a promotion and a big raise!” Of course not! Those positive occasions are deeply personal. Instead we say, “You’ve done great work, we think you’re adding a lot to the team, we want to have you around for a long time…” When we want to say something positive, it’s always personal.
So why do we feel the need to take the “personal” out of bad things?
When I hear “It’s nothing personal…” my brain translates it into “I’m about to say something bad; but I don’t want to deal with your emotional reaction so, I’m just putting it in this box called ‘business’ where I can’t be held responsible for your emotions.”
But I have emotions, we all do. Telling to me keep them in a box just feels crazy, and a little intimidating. Maybe what you are really saying is, “Since I’m about to end this relationship, I don’t want to invest the time or energy in your emotional reaction. So take those feelings and stuff ‘em; there’s no room for them here.” If you truly are ending the relationship, I guess that’s a choice you could make. But in this hyper-connected world—even if someone is getting terminated from their job, or you’re cutting a partner from a project—it’s likely that you still want their goodwill, right? You never know when you might need them, or a good word from them, in the future. Maybe telling them to “take those feelings and stuff ‘em” might not be a good long-term strategy…
See what I’m saying’? We put all of that “personal” stuff into the start of business relationships; we just don’t want it to be there at the end of those same relationships. Why? Could it be that we are uncomfortable with our own feelings? We are ending a relationship with someone that we did know, like and trust—at some point. But now…not so much. Rather than acknowledging those feelings, we try to ignore them (which means we need to make sure that you don’t get a chance to bring them up).
What to do instead?
I’m not a fan of long, drawn-out, termination conversations. I truly believe that there’s not a lot of good that can come from that. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t acknowledge the pain of the situation.
I’ve made a difficult decision. Based on your recent performance, I’ve decided to terminate your employment with us. We’ve done some good work together and I’m sure you will do good work in another role. I want to do everything I can to help you move on and find that new role. I’m sure you are feeling a lot of emotions right now; anger, fear, sadness, maybe a little relief… I’m just sorry it had to end like this.
How’s that for making room for some emotion? I’m sure others could do better. (Drop your best effort into the comments section—I’d love to see it!) At least that conversation acknowledges the feelings—unpleasant as they are, sure—but it gives permission for those feelings to be there. It also focuses both of us on the task ahead: separating from this organization and finding a home in a new one.
No one looks forward to having these conversations. But we will have them, no doubt. As painful as it is, I want to be able to respect the personhood of everyone at the table, when (for whatever reason) a working relationship is no longer “working”. Changing my approach to these conversations takes thought and courage; but the pay-off in integrity and my own capacity to deal with painful emotions makes it well worth it.