Don't Take It Personally

I ran cross country in high school. Unbeknownst to you cross country outsiders, you know those of you who were actually popular in high school, cross country is a team sport. I was reminded of this recently when rummaging through files in storage and uncovered a cadre of notes from high school.

One note, in particular, caught my eye. It was from a girl named Julie on my cross country team to me. After a recent meet, my team was upset with me. I acted unsportsman-like and these girls were not having it. The situation devolved into a lot of mean stares and whispered insults on the bus back from the meet. I dashed off a note to Julie lamenting that "people were talking behind my back."

Julie's reply to me was this, "Whatever people said on the bus yesterday was probably said out of anger at something you did; an action, not you personally. Know what I mean?"

Well, actually I didn't. While Julie was a sage at sixteen, it took me about sixteen more years to figure out what exactly she meant. Why? Because I took everything personally. Especially at work.

For years whenever a boss of mine called me into his office, my throat would drop to my stomach. Any bit of feedback or statement teetering on criticism, constructive or not, would send me into a state of dejection. Perhaps because our bosses in some ways play roles very similar to the only other leaders we've experienced in our lives: our parents, we seem ripe to take whatever they say not back to our desks, but straight to our hearts. As a result, for years I was ready to smack anyone who said, "Don't take it personally, it's only business." It's hard not to take something personally at work when you put so much of your person into it.

Still, Julie was on to something. It's critical in business to learn to separate the behavior from the person. Whether you're navigating a negotiation, receiving feedback or running with your office colleagues, it's easier to do when you are able to separate the two. To realize, in any type of interaction, that someone is responding to your behavior and its effectiveness or not as opposed to you—your very soul, is actually quite freeing.

Now, I think of the concept as similar to someone critiquing an outfit I have on. Does it flatter me? Maybe not, but wearing it doesn't mean I'm a bad person. It just means I'm wearing something (aka doing something) that isn't highlighting my best assets. As Julie said in her parting words to me in her note, "All that I said was to help you, NOT hurt you!! If you don't B-lieve me, then there's nothing more I can say."

For more invaluable lessons learned from cross country, see

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  • Bruce Jones

    It's only business....
    I've been in executive and senior management for a long time. Often the one who states this is looking for self-justification when he or she has wrongly taken advantage of someone. It's sad.

  • Mitch McCrimmon

    Not taking feedback personally is important if you want to remain objective and learn from feedback. However, I encourage managers to avoid ad hoc feedback, especially criticism as it is very hard to avoid raising the emotional temperature unduly with unexpected criticism

    I advocate regular feedback meetings, mainly led by the employee. The first step is for the employee to talk about what went well since the last review, what he or she is pleased about. Then the employee should state what hasn't gone well and what he or she might do about it. The manager's role is to coach, reinforce good points and add on things, both plus and minus, that the employee overlooked. This can be done with questions as well which are less confrontational than statements. For example: "How did you think X went?"

    Mitch McCrimmon