Don’t take it personally — it’s just business.”

In the best organizations you do not hear people say things like that.

Originally, the line “Don’t take it personally” was intended to be a nice way to help a person recognize that they needed some psychological distance between a particular issue and their own feelings. In this article from Psychology Today, therapist F. Diane Barth shares where it started and why it has value.

But in business, the same approach can have a counterproductive impact.

Smart leaders realize that when someone really cares about her or his actions, that person is more likely to do the job especially well. And when that happens — when everyone does their job especially well — their customers (whether internal or external) can tell. And they reward them.

The best organizations take things personally. Their people do, too.

Most companies don’t. They instill impersonal, paint-by-numbers approaches that kill creativity. We encounter them every day in most industries. Restaurants are famous for removing personal thinking:

This is how we make our hamburgers: 30 seconds of cooking a 3.75 oz. patty, always placed on the bottom bun, in the center, 2 dollops of our “special sauce,” 2 pickles sliced exactly 1/4″ thick, 1 pull on the ketchup container, a leaf of lettuce. Don’t deviate!

And it’s the same (more or less) in most industries, regardless of the product or service they create. I’ve run into it with companies in tech, hardware, manufacturing, the auto industry, newspapers, and call centers.

Most so-called “professional” organizations have fairly specific descriptions for how to do the job.

“The guys with the big offices have figured it all out. Just do what you’re told ,and everything will be fine.”

And when the economy is good, they can do pretty well. Until the market gets crappy.

When “people power” is most needed, there’s none around.

The “people” have lost their creativity, their care, their passion. They’ve become so “corporate” they’re unable to think “outside the box.”

But you CAN turn it around if you want.

I work with a VP in a large communications organization. Over a couple of months we spent a lot of time discussing what could be done to ensure their clients stay with them. Initially, it seemed that the only thing would be dropping prices. But price drops are only a short-term solution, and they rarely create client loyalty.

So I asked what could make their clients happy.

“Happy?” If you haven’t noticed, that’s not a word used much in large organizations. It’s a bit too touchy-feely. Hard to measure accurately. Especially hard to do an ROI analysis on. But it’s pretty easy to accept that when someone is happy with a service, a product, a relationship, she or he will stay with it.

We are less likely to discontinue things we’re happy with.

So the VP decided to change a few things that would help make her clients happier:

  • She talked to her team leaders about focusing on happiness as part of the end result of their work.
  • To ensure everyone understood her plan, she went directly to her team members to talk about why they all needed to start focusing on happiness.

Not surprisingly, most team members got it right away, but team leaders had a little trouble with it. The VP changed the terms she used with the managers.

She talked about happiness for both the client and the organization providing it, noting that it’s a result of providing great service. Using examples of organizations from other industries that made their customers happy like Zappos (the Internet shoe retailer), Starbucks, 5 Guys Hamburgers, Virgin Air, and Target, she made the point that being profitable can be a direct result of making customers happy.

More satisfied team = more good ideas flowing up = happy customers = greater profits.

Her results improved, employee satisfaction grew, and market share has grown.


Leadership Coach