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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 April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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