Updated: Dec 14, 2022
By Hillel Glazer, TCV Growth Partner -
We’ve all heard the admonition, “It’s about the work. Don’t make it personal” or something like that. We’ve often also heard “don’t take it personally.” Some of us might have even said these phrases.
Consider this: why are these words coming up in work-related conversations? What’s going on that makes saying them seem necessary? Would these words even come up if whoever’s meant to hear them felt safe and confident that they’re ensconced in an environment and culture designed to support and encourage them?
Put yourself in the shoes of someone who knows exactly what’s expected of them, has everything they need to get the work done, and can get help any time they need it. On top of that, imagine yourself as that person and you also know exactly how your work adds value to the goals of your organization, and you receive frequent and progressive feedback on your work. No one thing you do ever gets so close to the due date that you’re entirely in the dark as to whether or not you’re on track. And, on the occasion that you’re not on track, you’re able to make corrections quickly and without penalty.
If you’re that someone, why would anyone ever need to preface their feedback to you with “don’t take it personally?” They wouldn’t. You and the speaker would know exactly what’s needed, what’s expected, and how your role and the work you do fits in. Even if you don’t know what isn’t working well or how to correct for it, you’d both know that the company has your backs and that feedback is all part of working together toward shared objectives, not fault-finding.
It stands to reason that words along the lines of “don’t take it personally” are spoken when companies rely on their employees to fill in the voids between what they’ve been tasked with doing and what they’ve been given to get it done. Just ask anyone who’s ever received something less than a 4 or 5 out of 5 on their performance reviews. In fact, you could probably also ask many people who do get a 4 or 5 and have no idea why.
This post won’t get into the many evils of performance reviews. Having said that, performance review outcomes are a great place to start when looking for these voids in operational definition and performance infrastructure.
Whoa! That was a bit of whiplash, wasn’t it? How’d we go from “taking things personally” and performance reviews to operational definition and performance infrastructure? Just look back a couple of paragraphs ago. “Voids between what they’ve been tasked with doing and what they’ve been given to get it done.” The performance report is all about “what they’ve been tasked with doing” and “what they’ve been given to get it done” is what you get when you boil down operational definition and performance infrastructure.
In the absence of operational definition and performance infrastructure, the only thing a company can rely on when evaluating one’s performance, whether on a periodic basis (e.g., annually) or on a piece-by-piece basis (reviewing specific work products) is the person themselves. Evaluating results on the person themselves is nothing if not personal. But lacking definitions and infrastructure the company has nothing else to go on. So they make it personal but tell employees “don’t take it personally.” Of course, such a company doesn’t know any better. They probably don’t even realize just how personal they’ve made matters let alone why.
I recall receiving a commendation and a nice award at a job once. It was a big enough deal that they asked us to come in wearing a suit to receive it and have our picture taken with some VIP receiving it. A few weeks later I received a package with the photo framed and a framed certificate. Despite asking around, I never found out why my colleagues and I received the recognition. Because I had no idea what we did to deserve the recognition, questions about how our performance was evaluated—good or bad—gnawed at me for my entire tenure at that job.
At another job my performance was rated as “average--needs improvement” and enumerated several areas the company wanted me to work on. Did I know what was expected of me beforehand? Of course not. Were the tools or time to work on the areas made available? Again, no. Had anyone throughout the prior year seen work I did and suggested it (or I) needed improve on it? In fact, not only “no,” but quite the opposite. My work was top-notch. Not only was it stellar, customers provided glowing unsolicited feedback on my work and I also managed to expand the relationship with the customer’s boss’ boss. All of which were accomplished in the absence of my own supervisor who was out on medical disability. This would later contribute to the tipping point for me to leave that job.
At the very next job I knew exactly where I stood at all times. I saw the direct contribution of my work to the outcomes of the company. When I was under water I knew who I could pull in to help and no one balked. My managers (two different C-level executives at different times in the company) frequently checked in to ask what I need, keep me apprised of goings-on, point out how my work helped them accomplish their objectives, and also sat down with me any time something I did fell short of their needs. At no point was anything I did that didn’t meet their needs ever framed in a personal way. It was always framed in some element of, “we didn’t give you all the information,” or “we need you to learn this so you can do that,” go take some time to take a training class. And so on.
It wasn’t that the company in the third example has more money or resources than either of the first two examples. Diametrically opposite. They had the least. But what they did have was a comprehensive definition of how they company ran, what made it successful, and how all of the work contributed to performance. Jobs weren’t spelled out in tasks and experience, they were spelled out in accountabilities, resources, and lines of communication. Roles were unambiguous, well-matched to the people in them, and given latitude consistent with the scope of the work. The work itself, then, was clearly understood and tracked at short intervals to ensure that progress remained consistent with the latest knowledge of needs.
A well-defined operation isn’t only about delivery. It’s about your people. If your people take feedback personally, they’re unlikely to be performing at their best and may even be looking to depart. Either way, your company’s performance is at risk.
Does your operation have what it needs so that the people can do their work without making it personal? It’s not always easy to find out. But if you don’t know, you’re making it personal.
(EPILOGUE: There are many conversations to be had about providing feedback effectively as well as what may be going on when employees feel that “things always get personal” despite adequate operational definition and performance infrastructure. These topics are beyond the space here.) Would you like to discuss this further? Feel free to contact me at Hilllel@TCV-Growth.Partners