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All Business is Personal

All Business is Personal

There are no objective, impersonal “laws” of business. Even all those numbers and ratios won’t change that. At bottom, business and organizations are deeply personal and horribly messy. Until we accept that, we won’t get far in improving how they work.

It’s fashionable to see business as an impersonal activity: as a world governed by objective numbers, financial ratios, and so-called “business fundamentals.”

It’s not like that. Not at all.

At the heart of all business transactions are two intensely personal relationships . The simplest can be summed up in four words: You sell, I buy. That is business. Without buying and selling, there can be no profit, no investment, no reason to produce anything beyond what each individual needs to survive. Do we always buy rationally, based on impersonal factors like price, value, or features? No. We buy from those we enjoy dealing with, even if they are not the cheapest, or even the best in absolute terms. Emotions are as much part of making decisions as thoughts or facts.

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As soon as you move beyond individuals making and selling their own goods, on their own, you encounter the second personal relationship. This takes seven words: I work for you, you pay me. Whether it’s in a two- or three-person business in a back room, or some global behemoth employing tens of thousands, this is the essence of any employment contract. Do people always employ those best fitted for the job, in purely rational terms? They do not. They typically employ people they feel most comfortable being with; the ones they think they will probably enjoy having around.

I bring this up because it helps us realize that there are no impersonal laws of business. There is nothing like the “law” of gravity, or most of the “laws” of physics: nothing that works every time and everywhere, regardless of how anyone feels. Business is a series of interactions and relationships between human beings. As they change, so do the interactions. And, like everything else that humans do, beyond purely instinctive, physical actions like breathing, these relationships are, at their heart, matters of choice.

How we arrange to buy, to sell, to work, and to be paid for working, are activities that are as they are because that is how we have chosen to make them happen. We only treat the current patterns as inevitable—as inviolable “laws” of business—because we are so used to them. Yet the modern corporation is barely 100 years old. Recorded human history covers maybe 4000 years or so. So our way of doing business, which we treat as the only possible way to arrange for commerce to take place, was unknown for at least 97.5% of that time.

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Should that suggest that we have found the ultimate answer to commercial human interactions? That modern, Western capitalism is the ultimate pinnacle of mercantile achievement? That seems unduly arrogant, even for today’s capitalists. Is it the best answer we have found so far? Probably, yes. Is it the best we can ever find? I don’t think so. Should we stop trying to find others ways? Definitely not.

I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about relationships in the workplace, especially those between bosses and subordinates. The realities of organizational power and position mean the top jobs are not always held by either the most able or the best leaders. Besides, bad leadership, bad attitudes, and poor management practices are highly contagious. Just being around mean-spirited, aggressive, dishonest, and narrow-minded people, means that some of it will rub off on you. If that wasn’t bad enough, we have unprecedented access to virtually instantaneous communication . . . and mostly use it to waste time, check up on one another, circulate stupid jokes, and feed our personal paranoia.

Do those observations suggest a rational, impersonal, and nearly perfect understanding of set laws of business? Or do they rather indicate a messy, often poorly organized, and imperfectly understood series on person-to-person interactions, characterized mostly by personal emotions and individual neediness?

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Our present way of running our organizations are woefully inadequate to what is needed. If burnout and stress are common place—as they —it is because we have chosen to allow them to be so. Like primitive farmers, we utilize slash-and-burn techniques and have not yet reached the point where we can consistently “farm” our finite resources to increase the availability of talent and creativity for the future. We just consume what we have today in grabbing for short-term profits.

It’s easy to give up hope. The task of changing ingrained attitudes to work and business seems beyond anyone’s ability. But it is not beyond the power of many people, working together. Every small step to reject the culture of mindless, short-term, “grab -n-go” management is a step towards finding a better approach. Like drops of water coming together to carve through solid rock, people can change what people have created. Sooner or later, what today we see as inevitable will become as silly and outmoded in our eyes as the penny farthing bicycle or women wearing huge feathered hats and whalebone corsets. How long we continue to fight the forces of change is up to us. The longer we do, the harder the change will be when it finally comes.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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