We so often hear the saying “nothing personal, just business” in the world of work. It’s prevalence has grown in western society to the point where it is pretty much seen as the normal approach to treating people at work. Even people who are otherwise good people in life often subscribe to this notion of separating their work and personal selves. But where does this ideology come from and it is justified?
The “nothing personal, just business” mantra is perfect for psychopaths and morally desensitized people, since it gives them the excuse and rationalization required for their poor treatment of someone.
It is a perfect “smoothing over line” typical of the glib charm and deception psychopaths are known for, screwing someone over whilst at the same time using their charm to convince the unfortunate victim there is “nothing personal” behind it and they “don’t like” having to do this.
In reality a psychopath couldn’t care less about the suffering they inflict on others, and well meaning people who embrace this toxic ideology are themselves assuming psychopathic traits and corrupting their own characters.
“Just business” is a great term they can hide behind though to make it appear they care and to divorce themselves from the emotional consequences of their actions on others. Because they have cleverly separated their identity into two parts – “business” and “personal”, they think that sectioning off their poor treatment of others into the business part somehow makes it OK.
The reality is that the same person is doing the mistreating and the same internal corruption occurs to us all when we unnecessarily harm or mistreat another, however smoothly or glibly it is excused away. The Buddhists told us thousands of years ago that to harm another is to harm oneself. Can anyone seriously argue that changes because we say “nothing personal, just business”?
Here are some of the things which actually go on under this now morally bankrupt cliche:
- Firing a person who has a wife and children to support.
- Completely gutting companies – closing down departments or stores and leaving dozens or hundreds unemployed without a second thought – “it’s just business”.
- Engaging in cut-throat tactics and corrupt activities which closes down competitors, leaving all their employees and their families vulnerable. All under “it’s just business”.
- Destroying a career and reputation that someone may have spent years building, so they can take their place.
- Hiding behind the mantra to get rid of someone who they actually see as a threat or don’t like.
It is no surprise that one of the purported origins of this “nothing personal, just business” phrase is the Godfather movie series, which tells you everything you need to know about where it is coming from morally and ethically.
The Godfather films are portraying psychopathic, criminal environments to a tee, with all the mistrust, pananoia, backstabbing and rationalization that goes on there. Who decided it was a good idea to import this toxic idea into the business world?
Is This Ideology Ever Justified?
It is normally fair in these articles to offer some balance. Do difficult decisions not sometimes have to be made in business? Shall we just let troublemakers get away with anything they want? Do people not sometimes need to be let go?
Of course all these points are true. There are good people who have to make tough decisions in business. There is a difference though between a human being with morals and values having to make a tough call and hating every minute of it, and a ruthless psychopath who makes these decisions frivolously and couldn’t care less about the consequences of their actions on others, even sometimes grinning and smirking their way through the entire process and joking about other people’s downfall.
Too often it is the latter type of person who makes their way into positions of power and ends up making these calls. This is why we argue that “nothing personal, just business” is a bankrupt idea. It has been hijacked by too many amoral and psychopathic characters who are saying the words but couldn’t care less about the way they treat others or the impact their decisions have on their lives.
It is ironic that in so many of the workplaces that adhere to this mentality the most, the real troublemakers are indeed tolerated and allowed to fester because they are seen to be doing a good job for the company, whilst good genuine people are marginalized and forced out because they are not willing to stoop down to the same levels of immorality.
Psychopathic characters are also exactly the type of person who are left to make these tough calls precisely because they can do things like fire and screw people over without the same emotional hangups that normal people with a conscience would have. They are left to do the dirty work so others don’t have to, which is again another form of “cop out” from apathetic onlookers who refuse to stand up for their own values.
“Those who have done horrible things to others have a corruption inside them – they’ve been hurt deeply by their own actions”
For The Good of the Business or The Good of Their Ego?
For all the talk of “putting egos aside” and “for the good of the business”, the management zealots who are so often in favour of this mantra seem to have very big egos, and very fragile ones as well. They are walking contradictions, claiming to be doing what’s best for business, but actually propping up their own egos the whole time.
Here are some common traits I have seen among these modern management types:
- A very egotistical and materialistic mindset.
- An exaggerated careerist mindset, where they are obsessed with promotions, progression, power, money. They often have their identity and ego totally wrapped up in their work.
- Related to this, they also tend to be dogmatic in their beliefs – imposing their careerist values on everyone else. Because they are completely wrapped up in their work, they expect everyone else to be, when everyone is different and motivated by different things. They judge others by their own values, and expect people to live by the same values they do. To elaborate on this:
- Lack of consideration for work-life balance, because it isn’t something which interests them. Because they often have little or no life outside work, and so don’t expect you to have any as well.
- Related to this, expected to do overtime and excessively long shifts and become completely absorbed by the job just like they are, even if that’s not what motivates you. It wouldn’t bother them, and so they think it shouldn’t bother you.
- A complete lack of understanding that different people are motivated by different things. Often can’t relate to the idea that some people are perfectly happy turning up, doing their job and going home, with a happy family and social life outside of work. They can’t relate to this, since it is often noticeably absent from their own lives – it’s work only for them.
- People who aren’t careerists and don’t want to progress are sometimes even looked down on with disdain and even bullied. They cannot conceive of the fact that people can be happy as and where they are. Again a roundabout imposing of their values on others. They’re obsessed with promotions, progression and prestige so you are expected to be as well.
- Excessive “cleverness” – an ability to come up with some clever answer to every objection or disagreement, without actually acknowledging the point.
- Related to the last point, every discussion where there is any kind of challenging or disagreement becomes an ego battle where they have to win and the other person has to lose. Contrast this to mature, adult discussion, where people are actually listening to each other instead of scoring points.
- A ruthless, “psychopath-ized” nature – even if they aren’t full blown psychopaths, they often mimic psychopathic traits in that they believe treating people in any way is justified because it’s “just business”. A twisted mindset that allows them to trample over others and treat underlings and peers appallingly in the name of business.
- They often show a complete disinterest in even attempting to find a solution to a problem which doesn’t mean people have to be treated so badly. There is never even an attempt to act morally and reasonably. They default straight to mistreating others – they have internalized the “just business” approach so fully that they can bypass ethics altogether without flinching.
- A “look the other way” approach, where toxic, psychopathic troublemakers are often tolerated and allowed to fester, again in the name of what’s supposedly “best for business”.
In more general terms, a mindset which has firmly separated “personal” and “business”, which they think is good but which has actually turned into just an excuse and rationalization for the poor treatment of others.
The “nothing personal, just business” mantra has lost it’s credibility, having been hijacked by too many psychopathic characters. It has de-humanized workplaces and divorced people from the emotional consequences of their actions on others.
What Results Does This Ideology Create?
We can judge the success of these “nothing personal, just business” modern management environments by the fruit they bear, in terms of morale and satisfaction, not just profit/loss. Here are some pointers:
- A higher concentration of unethical and immoral people enter the company, because these aspects of character are overlooked in the hiring and promotion procedures. It becomes about what is “best for business”, with character traits left out of the equation.
- A greater number of people with amoral or outright psychopathic characters begin to be allowed into positions of power over others.
- A by-product of this is that many good workers may be forced out as they see the culture turning toxic and exit, or else psychopathic characters start playing politics and set them up to be isolated, undermined and eventually pushed out or fired.
- The above two factors combine to generate over time a lowering in quality of the overall workforce, with a higher concentration of toxic, psychopathic characters and a lower concentration of genuine high quality people.
- Remember, psychopaths are not genuine high performers; they only appear so by mimicking the true high performers, constantly manipulating, stealing the ideas of others etc.
- In time, this will start to hurt a company by producing a more and more toxic and immoral culture, where unprofessional and unethical behavior begins to be seen as the norm. The atmosphere grows more and more toxic as the above trends continue and the culture becomes entrenched.
- Staff turnover, dissatisfaction, complaints, grievances and litigation all tend to increase, further draining the company’s resources as more and more staff become disenchanted with the company culture and make their feelings known.
- See this excellent documentary on psychopaths for some great discussion on this, as well as the extracted clip below by psychologist Paul Babiak on how psychopaths destroy a company from within.
- In some sectors there may also be increased scandals and poor PR as a result of increasingly unethical and inappropriate behavior eg. financial fraud, harassment cases, customers scammed and treated badly, rip offs etc.
And related to all these points, here are some simple pointers higher executives can ask themselves regarding the culture they are creating in their companies:
- Are staff happy in these environments? Do they get up looking forward to their day at work, under reasonable, humane management? Or do they get that Sunday evening dread of facing another week of politics? The latter is becoming the case more and more.
- How much subjective distress do staff experience in these environments – irritation, stress, bullying, isolation, invalidation, anxiety etc. This ideology is causing people to suffer significantly. The people responsible are rationalizing away their guilt about this with the “nothing personal, just business” mantra.
- Look at issues like staff dissatisfaction, turnover, complaints and grievances and litigation and lawsuits. How much money and time do companies expend sorting all these issues out? How much of this results from the poor treatment of others? How could all of that time and money have been better spent by the company?
- See these studies on Corporate psychopathy for the negative impacts this kind of mindset has on workforces and companies:
The most toxic companies which implement this mantra to an extreme extent will see a “psychopath-izing” of their culture, where psychopaths and other ruthless personalities become more and more concentrated in the workforce, and honest people with integrity get pushed out.
The overall quality of the workforce declines as a result, and such companies tend to self destruct from within from corruption and scandals. See our article on psychopathic companies.
Seeing the Bigger Picture Again
It is important here to step back from daily life and take a wider view on this. What really matters in life? Do careers, promotions, profits and material things really matter? Our egos may convince us that they do, but the ego itself is just a series of defences as psychologists have pointed out before.
When people reach the end of their life and reflect back on what they have done, these material things mean very little. Rather, it is the more intangible qualities and choices – the way they have behaved, the way they have treated others, the moral choices they have made, whether they have ever truly done anything vocational or just sought power, money and petty victories – which come into much sharper focus. The quality of their existence and relationships will be the key yardstick at this moment.
Someone who has spent their entire life engaged in petty ego battles and power games, politics and drama, mistreating others, getting to the top and winning at all costs, will get a big shock at this moment. The realization will hit them that it was all pointless and for nothing.
The “nothing personal, just business” ideology is used by people all over the world to justify a whole load of behaviors and treatment of others which, in their final days and hours in life, they will not be proud of looking back on.
On a deeper level, this is why that mantra needs to be expunged from the business world, and people need to show an interest in doing what is right and just and not what is “best for business”. The idea is arguably psychopathic at the core, and has certainly been hijacked by psychopaths in the business world as it is the perfect excuse to hide behind in mistreating others.
See also Howard Stein’s book Nothing Personal, Just Business – A Guided Journey Into Organizational Darkness, available on Amazon, which charts the toxic consequences of this ideology on workplaces all over the world.