musings on life

Here, you'll learn about my journey of adulting in the Windy City.

The Right Way To Take Work Personally

In your career, you're definitely going to face challenges. I mean, it's nearly impossible to have a 9-5 for years (or decades) and not encounter situations that will leave you feeling a way. I was talking to a friend recently who shared some difficulties she was having at her job. Her manager, a seasoned industry veteran, was explaining the ins and outs of what was going on and internally and wrapped the conversation with, "Look, I mean, don't take any of this personally. You're not a bad person in any way. It's just a job."

As I'm listening to my friend recount the conversation, I cringed a bit after hearing don't take any this personally. The phrase bothers me considerably because it often comes across as a blanket reinforcement, particularly at work, when things are going quite right. In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) piece I came across:

 it’s a sentiment we have all often heard in professional contexts: Don’t take it personally or Hey, it’s not personal, it’s business.

It's often said about feedback, conflict, difficult conversations, restructuring, losing a new business pitch, collaboration, etc. — you know, typical workplace ins and outs.

And I'm sure my friend's manager had the best of intentions when she said it, but when you're executing at the office a minimum of 5 days a week, countless hours, meetings and work trip expectations and you've suddenly come under fire, how are you not supposed to be personally impacted by this?  Here are some things to consider to support why you should take work personally:

You need to achieve success and well-being at the gig

I get it. By "not taking it personally" you're establishing a defense against situations that can be challenging, even threatening to your job security. But there are definitely benefits to making leadership and work personal. In your industry, who are the people you look up to and consider successful? Admire? Take business/professional tips from? Ok, got that person in your head? Cool. These folks, if I had to guess, probably take work very personally. How else do you think they achieved their goals? I think folks that treat their jobs as nothing more than a means to an end depersonalize themselves from what they're doing and probably only do the bare minimum and negatively impact business performance. Look, whether you like your gig or not, every job is an opportunity. Do it well. Care!

Get you some emotional intelligence

You have to learn what to internalize and what to let go. Every engagement, conversation or interaction does not warrant a category 5 hurricane reaction! It helps if you try to understand the position from which you are being spoken to.  Is this the way they interact with many people, not just you? Is it their usual way to be critical, to insult, to blame or shame? Maybe that person hasn’t mastered how to communicate in a healthy way. Either way, it's not about you. Don’t make assumptions about judgment or criticism seemingly directed at you. It probably isn't about you at all, but rather about them and their own perceptions projected onto you. In fact, it’s almost always about them, their issues, their needs, and their desire to control you and/or a situation. Get the way you receive the information in check. 

Learn what it means to manage boundaries

I think this is what folks really mean when they tell you not to take things personally. And to be honest, I'm still learning this myself. I can admit, when someone communicates with me in a way that's a bit brash, I feel inclined to dish the same communication back. However, there is a distinction between having passion for your job and attaching so much self-worth to it that you are not able to protect yourself psychologically, where every mishap and mistake is taken so personally that it penetrates the core of your self-esteem. Y'all, that ain't cool -- this is what I meant by not internalizing things. Your job can be replaced, but your psyche should be treated with care at all times. If work becomes too dominant a part of your identity, that can be extremely damaging too. 

I don't always have the right words in the moment -- sometimes, I need things to sit with me for a while before I offer advice or an intelligent perspective. If the convo comes up again, I think I would tell my friend that whatever is going on wrong at work is no reflection of her value or worth as a person. It's ok to be frustrated, disappointed, confused by direction and/or led to questioning certain things, but your life and career are not defined by one isolated incident. You're going to be disappointed at moments in your career -- TRUST. But even in those disappointing moments, seek understanding from them and use them as opportunities to better your management and/or leadership. Regardless, you should always trust God to better the circumstances. It's your story. Your life. Your mistakes. Your lessons. And in my opinion, those things should be taken very personally. 


Kikora N. Mason