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It’s not personal, it’s business?

We spend most of our waking hours preparing for work, at work or recovering from work, and yet it's not personal, it's just business? Susan Fowler explains why that's not the case, and where servant leadership can help.

5 min read


It’s not personal, it's business?

Susan Fowler

​​Try a little pop quiz. Ask someone you lead to finish the sentence, “It’s not personal, it’s just _________.” You’ll rarely find anyone who fails the test.

“It’s not personal, it’s just business” is embedded in our collective psyche. But consider what this commonly held belief says about a leader’s values and approach to leadership. Without conscious awareness, this belief leads to values that guide decisions, shape priorities and determine how people are treated.

As a manager, you deliver information and feedback to team members that affect their goals, priorities, livelihood, opportunities, status, income, mood, health and well-being. How is this not personal?

Consider this: On average, employees spend 75% of their waking hours connected to work — getting ready for work, getting to work, working, returning home from work, and decompressing. Now that many of us work from home, that percentage is probably higher.

Yet managers believe their actions are not personal and just business. Really?

The time has come to challenge traditional beliefs and form new ones that promote both results and well-being. As we’ve learned through the pandemic, that’s a problem. Never has performance been so obviously connected to people’s thriving. 

Three ways to reconsider your leadership perspective are to practice authentic servant leadership, embrace the “F-word” in the workplace and flip the belief that could be preventing you from being the leader people need, especially today.

Practice authentic servant leadership

Unfortunately, many commonly held beliefs find their root in obsolete command-and-control management theories that make it almost impossible for people to flourish at work.

Robert Greenleaf eloquently coined the definition of servant leadership when he wrote, in part:

“The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them, there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”

Now consider that motivation science has identified people’s highest priority needs. Thanks to groundbreaking research, we know how to promote thriving through three psychological needs for choice, connection and competence. When these needs are satisfied, the result is optimal motivation.

Optimal motivation is the key to thriving and essential to productivity, sustained high performance, creativity and innovation, mental and physical health, and general well-being. Optimal motivation leads to the positive intentions and behavior that fuel employee engagement and employee work passion.

The ultimate servant leadership is supporting the psychological needs that result in people’s optimal motivation and thriving.

You don’t need motivation science to explain how the belief “It’s not personal, it’s just business” is more likely to erode than support people’s psychological needs. The premise is the antithesis of servant leadership.

Leaders who master motivation with others explode leader-centric beliefs and replace them with people-centered views that exemplify servant leadership.

Embrace the “F-word” at work

What you say and do feel personal to the people you lead. Connection, one of the three psychological needs required for people to thrive, includes acknowledging people’s emotions. But in business, the “F-word” is “feelings.”

Getting to the root of why emotions are discouraged in business is a worthy exploration. But one primary reason feelings are eschewed in the workplace is because managers don’t have the skill to deal with them effectively. True, some people don’t self-regulate well and may let their emotions get the best of them from time to time. But the fear of unruly emotions is disproportionate to the occurrence and severity of emotional outbreaks.

Research shows that, even though people judge their work environment both emotionally and cognitively, emotions are the primary determinant of their sense of well-being. As a manager, your actions strongly influence the outcome of an individual’s appraisal process that results in the sense of well-being — or not.

If you do not notice, acknowledge and deal with a person’s emotions, you may unwittingly be undermining that sense of well-being that is the vital link to a person’s intentions and behavior.

Flip the belief

Exploding debilitating beliefs and replacing them with people-centered beliefs grounded in optimal motivation, you can create a different workplace reality where your servant leadership nurtures people’s natural desire to be productive and thrive.

Try this: Flip the traditional belief and adopt one that supports people’s optimal motivation and your servant leadership: “If it is business, it’s personal.”

Watch how your leadership changes as your belief changes. Then notice the positive effect your changed belief has on those you lead.


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit

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