Why the expression"Don't take it personally" as a working advice is a mistake

During a recent collaboration with a leader who had lost a valued team member to a competitor, the words "Don't take it personally" emerged in our conversation.
Don't take it personally | Amwork

This advice, often dispensed in workplace contexts, especially in times of setbacks or challenges, is commonly regarded as sage wisdom. However, upon closer examination, it becomes evident that this notion is fundamentally flawed.

Consider the workplace as the arena where we invest the majority of our waking hours and, indeed, a substantial portion of our lives. To suggest that we should not take it personally is, in essence, asking us to detach from a significant portion of our existence. Is it reasonable to divorce the bulk of our lives from personal involvement?

While the intent behind “not taking it personally” is to shield ourselves from the rigors and uncertainties of work, there are compelling reasons to assert that making our work, leadership, and followership personal can be advantageous.

Firstly, it correlates with success and well-being at work. Think about the individuals you admire for their inspiration, energy, and accomplishments. Chances are, they deeply personalize their work. On the contrary, those who have distanced themselves from the personal aspect of work are typically not the most enjoyable colleagues. Personal experience indicates that success often aligns with taking work personally.

This concept isn't just about psychology or semantics; it extends to tangible business outcomes. Consider the connection between engaged employees and business performance. Engaging with work is, in essence, a form of taking it personally. Low levels of workplace engagement highlight the potential costs of depersonalization.

Moreover, ethics come into play. Many corporate ethics scandals, spanning embezzlement to environmental negligence, have roots in the mindset of “it's not personal, it's business.” This detachment can lead executives and teams to absolve themselves of responsibilities toward society, the environment, and the well-being of stakeholders.

Given these factors, it is evident that fulfilling our obligations as executives and realizing our leadership potential necessitates a personal investment in our work. A dehumanized and depersonalized workforce is more likely to treat stakeholders poorly.

However, it's crucial to distinguish between taking work personally and an inability to set boundaries. Passion for one's job should not translate into an unhealthy attachment where every setback erodes self-esteem. When work overshadows your identity, it becomes a perilous endeavor.

A balanced approach exists between workaholism and emotional detachment. Instead of succumbing to the soul-crushing notion of “it's not personal,” it's advisable to acknowledge disappointment, frustration, and a desire to understand and improve. But, by all means, do not forfeit the personal connection to your work.

Taking work personally involves risks; it can lead to disappointments and setbacks. Yet, akin to the enigma of love, what is the alternative? Is it preferable to shield yourself from heartbreak by avoiding love altogether? Similarly, should we disengage from our work to evade disappointment?

For your sake and the benefit of those you work with, recognize that this is your life, and it's worth taking personally—every aspect of it.


Matteo Bianchi

Matteo Bianchi


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