Dealing with rejection is a core competency

The number one reason most people don’t do interesting things is that they are afraid of rejection.  They don’t ask that special someone on a date, they don’t start a business, they don’t even apply for a job, or they don’t even ask for a discount. 

Rejection-despair People are too afraid of rejection.

One of the reasons online dating is so popular is that it makes rejection a lot easier.   There, no one knows when you have been rejected.   It makes it much easier for people to handle failure.  Romantic rejection can be very bitter.

In the workplace, rejection takes another tone.  Many people are worried about proposing out-of-the-box ideas for fear that they might get rejected.  But unconventional ideas are just the things that need to be reviewed at companies.   If your ideas are not being rejected at least 50% of the time, you are playing it way too safe (or too political).   A good rate of rejection within a company is 50-80%.

I would guess that people who take rejection well make much better employees.  They can take the appropriate level of risk and still feel good about themselves.  When interviewing, test this trait.

One question I was asked recently: How can you teach people to better handle rejection?   I don’t have a good answer to that and would appreciate your comments.

43 thoughts on “Dealing with rejection is a core competency

  1. Susan Alexander

    Auren ~
    What a great blog you have. Just found it via RT @shervin. My current post is about teaching ourselves how to handle rejection. It focuses on the book Mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck. Her widely-cited research demonstrates that the way people process rejection flows directly from whether they have what she calls a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. I spent about a gazillion hours making the post really clear (and fun to read via a tie-in to the Beatles), so I hope you’ll have a look: http://bit.ly/gQpqW5 It would be great to know what you think.
    Stated briefly, people with growth mindsets believe that all they do is for the purpose of learning. So they accept rejection as part of the process, and they seek to learn and grow from it. This perception buffers a lot of the hurt that comes from rejection. In contrast, people with fixed mindsets believe that all they do comes from their fixed/innate qualities (like IQ and “talent”), so they perceive the world as a place for judgment and being judged. That’s why rejection hurts them so much. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. Dweck explains how, and my post goes over it. Life gets a lot easier when we make the shift, and we get a lot more done.
    You’re absolutely right that people who take rejection well make better employees. It’s because those people have growth mindsets – they’re always seeking to learn. My post talks about Scott Forstall’s take on Dweck’s principles and how/why he applied them in putting together the iPhone development team.
    It’s all really fascinating, I think. I’d love to know what you think. Awesome blog. I look forward to reading more.
    Susan Alexander
    @SusanRPM4

    Reply
  2. Rachnaspace

    Excellent observation.
    On a slightly philosophical note – you need to really love yourself, to be able to explore/experiment and handle rejection that may come as a result. We’re just more protective of ourselves..

    Reply
  3. Sheraan Amod

    Hi Auren. Awesome blog. I’m not sure about teaching people in general about how to handle rejection, but as a CEO one can certainly help their staff in this department. When I shoot down ideas that that I’ve received from team members, I am quick to thank them for asserting themselves and confirm that we are creating a culture where we push boundaries and make mistakes, as that is the path to innovation and success. I find that this behavior leaves them feeling motivated instead of rejected, and contributes to a more positive work environment where the ideas flow freely.

    Reply
  4. Iz

    I agree with the main premise of this post and would call it an essential feature of being an entrepreneur.
    However I really must take issue with your statement that *employees* should be raising rejectable ideas 50-80% of the time. Employees like this get fired. You and your fellow entrepreneurial-minded types might wish your employees were more like this, but in most established companies, in most positions, people like this get fired. You’re not supposed to have a better idea than the boss about how to run stuff. Most bosses want followers, not leaders.
    So the reason people don’t do it more often is not because they’re timid but because they’re smart. They want to keep their jobs and not have the rest of the crowd think they’re crazy. They know that the best way to get ahead is to have one good idea about every year of so and keep their mouth shut most of the time. Then they’re stuck in that mindset. This culture builds on itself until you have a nation of lemmings.
    But your advice still stands for anyone in the startup environment, anyone who wants to “be their own person”, and anyone with job security, such as CEOs.

    Reply
  5. Charles Araujo

    Auren – great post. It is so important to understand this. Part of the answer is personal training – learning to not take rejection personally. Organizationally, it is also a leadership trait. Creating an organization and corporate culture that rewards risk taking and even celebrates failure (when the effort was true) are critical to enabling your team to overcome their fear of rejection.

    Reply
  6. Auren Hoffman

    Good point Iz. However, if one is working for a boss that would fire you because he’s insecure about your good ideas, then that boss doesn’t deserve you. You should quit. If your ideas are actually better than his, you’ll have no trouble finding a job at a company that appreciates you.
    and remember, having “bad” ideas is really important. It encourages creativity and results in creating really unique ideas.

    Reply
  7. TriKro

    Very good post.
    I can only suggest one simple solution to your question, “How can you teach people to better handle rejection?”
    With practice. Everyone, everywhere only get better at a task, skill, or even personality trait through it’s thorough and diligent repetition.
    As is, handling rejection is probably the easiest skill to master because the skill is transitive between work, hobbies, and personal life. That means there are plenty of places to practice.
    Practicing getting rejected at a bar and not taking it like it’s the end of the world will help you deal with rejection of your prized project at work.

    Reply
  8. Irina Issakova

    Should you teach people to handle rejection better or should you teach managers to frame rejection in a better way (so that it doesn’t sound like rejection)?
    The best managers I’ve had were able to frame “rejection” in a positive way that would strengthen the team and tie the “rejection” back to the benefit of the company. In that way, no one’s feelings got hurt about their idea having been rejected and everyone understood that the good of the company comes first, before their own ideas.
    P.S. FYI, I tried to sign in with Facebook to comment, but couldn’t.

    Reply
  9. Amir Homayoun Rafizadeh

    Great title and great post.
    Small suggestions per what others have said already:
    Better training in school/college to prepare for the possibility of rejection. We are always taught to win(go to best schools get the best grades, do this and do that). What if we become a B grade student but not always an A student? That can’t be a loser.
    Losers don’t get a prize. So if you lost during Superbowl, we are always led to believe number 2 is horrible and they were losers. Really? In all the teams they were number 2 (which is pretty damn good) vs the teams that never got in the playoffs. To overcome that and play again next year is overcoming rejection(a slightly different one).
    Every member of a company should be trained to learn about how to cope with rejection. Its a competency for sure.

    Reply
  10. stuart@greenesearch.com

    I would add to this that the #1 reason why people fail is because they can’t cope with rejection. I’m a recruiter and I deal with rejection every day; in fact, I get many “no’s” to every “yes”. I believe that our characters get built by the way we cope with rejection.

    Reply
  11. Hunter Johnson

    Some advice for writers that can be twisted to apply here: your first million words are going to suck, so you might as well get them out of the way. Writers have to get used to rejection slips, but in the workplace we have no reason to. I think practice is the best teacher here: teach people in the workplace how to handle rejection by handing out rejection slips, and make it part of their goals (and part of the criteria for their raises/bonuses) each year to collect at least 5/10/20/however many slips. They get to practice handling rejection, and you get the added bonus of more participation in idea-generation.

    Reply
  12. Leyla

    Love this subject! As a small business owner, I find myself having to deal with rejection and overcome failure daily. Having grown up in a family that always encouraged me to take the safe road, overcoming rejection is dually difficult.
    My best advice is, practice. Start small with your risks and mistakes so the impact is less permanent, once you’ve gained confidence, take greater risks. Soon enough, you’ll be base jumping.
    Leyla
    http://www.leylaruinseverything.com

    Reply
  13. Ric Fleisher

    It is simple. People should be in sales at one point or another in there life. It teaches you to be thick skinned and move forward. Being an entrepreneur with various ups and downs is also helpful.

    Reply
  14. Pamela Hawley

    Auren, this is one of those important nuances in communication. Thank you for bringing it up.
    I believe that if you want to have people be able to accept rejection, then there are three significant ways to do so:
    Be humble, emphasize Lessons Learned, and have a respectful, kind tone.
    1- Be A Humble CEO. In regular conversations and team meetings, be sure to point not only to your successes, but also to ways that your decisions could be better. You can show lessons learned. In business we are always learning, refining, retooling and getting to new heights.
    So first as CEOs we need to be open to self commentary on how we can be better. That creates a culture of openness where we are all improving.
    2- Lessons Learned vs. Mistakes. If someone doesn’t have a good idea or makes an error, we usually try to find some part of the idea that is good.
    Not all components, of all ideas, are bad. Try to point to some part of their idea is good thinking — ie “Thank you for diving into the social media space. You are right we need to be more aggressive there; perhaps we can still work with the idea of getting more 20 somethings involved in another way.”
    It validates that some part of their idea or process was right…but not the entire idea. There is a lesson to be learned.
    If someone keeps bringing up the same type of idea which doesn’t work or making similar errors, then it does become a mistake and needs to be firmly corrected.
    3. Be Incredibly Respectful in Tone.
    It’s really not what you say when you turn down an idea.
    It’s all about how you say it.
    Is it in distaste?
    Or with appreciation that they are trying to build your business?
    If you don’t respect an employee — even if you don’t say anything, rest assured what is in your head and heart will be “heard” by that team member.
    Keep your mind gracious, clear and appreciative.
    And your input should then be respected and appreciated.
    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO
    UniversalGiving http://www.universalgiving.org
    Living and Giving blog: http://pamelahawley.wordpress.com

    Reply
  15. James Strock

    Terrific post Auren!
    I would second the point made so well by Irina. It’s all bound up in the underlying question: ‘Who are you serving?’
    Rejection is tough because it can hit one’s self-esteem, one’s ego.
    In management settings, if one is offering ideas for the benefit of the enterprise, rejection can be disappointing but should not be allowed to be dispiriting or discouraging. A good manager will train everyone involved to limit perceptions of rejection and its sting.
    In romantic situations this can be a bit more difficult but the principle is the same: if one’s aiming to serve another, the rejection’s sting can at least be mitigated, placed in context.
    The bottom line in this as in so much else in life and work: ‘It’s not (just) about you.’ 🙂

    Reply
  16. Joe Hickman

    Perfect timing Auren. I’m opportunity hunting at present so I expect I will be facing some rejection of my own in the coming weeks.
    I think one of the biggest lessons I have learned is “don’t fight rejection, listen” and “keep your cool”. This isn’t to say give up, but are you listening to “why” you are being rejected? Did you learn anything in the process? Is the person or people who are rejecting your idea or offer adding any value to either the way in which you approach offering up new ideas or the idea itself? I think about 90% of the time rejection offers up new value.
    This is an interesting topic and one that would be interesting to explore from a generational standpoint. As we get older are we expected to play it safe or does it really have more to do with the environment in which we are working? My “general” observation in working in start ups as well as working in large corporations is the following: In startups rejection has typically had far less “sting” than in larger corporations due in part to the more intimate nature of the work environment. At Oracle & others I learned very quickly to be extremely careful about how I brought forth ideas because the choice in words and the audience was far more willing to dissect every word with little apprehension in cutting the idea down in fairly brutal manner. My conclusion is that it takes a lot more courage to put your credibility on the line in large corporation than it does in a startup. Still, if you are lucky to be paired with good management the sky is the limit even in a large corporation.
    If I were sitting down with a direct who just came out of a meeting where they were shot down the first question I would ask them is “what did you learn from that experience”? I have noticed that people tend to personalize rejection in the workplace more than in prior years and it’s important to breakdown the reasoning behind the rejection. This is not to say that personalities don’t come into play, but I would first focus on the validity of the rejection first and turn that rejection into a learning experience or an added value to the original idea.

    Reply
  17. ben croasdale

    Super Post Auren.
    Handling rejection and being persistent are qualities that most of us are naturally capable of in our youth. We have all seen or raised the child that quite reasonably says why when their suggestion is rejected without salient reasoning. It is often too complex for a parent to respond in a diligent manner. Unfortunately most cultures train their youth via operant and pavlovian conditioning where persistence often results in rejection. The purest example is a young worker fresh out of college with great insight offering suggestions to management. Initially a number of the suggestions were acted upon and reflected on the employee as a valuable contributor. After several months a situation arose which management deemed as a negative action from the employee. In fact this was a pure relevant suggestion with great merit that had not been properly set forth. From that point forward management no longer regarded the individuals input as valid or in the best interest of the organization. After a few months the employee left the employer. The individual tempered his enthusiasm and moving forward offers occasional suggestions to his next employer with guarded provisos. It is likely that by the time this employee has been in the working world for 10 years he shall be fully indoctrinated on corporate politics and become an average worker with occasional contribution. This conditioning is a failing of management. Exceptional contributors have their will to thrive in an organization squeezed out of them by management that fails to empower employees and solicit ideas that are radical, revolutionary or out of the box. It is rare to encounter a true leadership team that empowers employees who embrace risk and embark on the discussions which may provide a path toward critical improvements.

    Reply
  18. Oli

    Auren, I am referring to your question “how can you teach people to better handle rejection?”
    I think in order to be able to evaluate an answer, we need to understand, why are people afraid of rejection ?
    I have experienced rejections myself, and without getting deeper into your own thoughts and feelings, it can feel really bad. It can make you feel like the third party, who is rejecting you, is trying to attack your existence. You could feel threathened, feared, discriminated and attacked. Maybe these kind of feelings go back to our ancestors for thousands of years, where being rejected actually could result in injury and death.
    These kind of feelings of course do not make any sense in modern life, where you apply for a job or want to enter a casino. My wife once was rejected to enter a casino with me because she were a Jeans. She freaked completly out back at home because of this, the whole evening was destroyed, so bad she felt about it. She said that she wants to burn down the casino (of course this was just her feeling and she did not consider seriously). But look at these feelings, she never wanted to burn down anything before since the 12 years I know her. She felt threathened in her existence down to the bone – for no reason.
    All these feelings seem to go away if we start to understand, why we have been rejected. We have been rejected not because someone wants to destroy us, but for a lot more friendlier reasons.
    I think a big part of all rejections is based on misunderstandings and a low level of information. The girl is not really rejecting me as a person, because she does not really know me. She is rejecting the silly sentence I said to her, that really was not the best, if I look at it after 10 years:”the coffee here is really good.”
    Another very big part of rejections is based on problems people might have for themselves. If someone is in a bad mood, he might reject me because he does not want to talk to anybody. And this is not related in any way to me.
    To end finally with an answer to the question, how to teach people to deal with rejections, I think this would make sense:
    1.) Teach people to understand and deal with their feelings when they are rejected.
    2.) Make people think about what the true reason for the rejection could be (in the most cases not even related to me)
    3.) After having understood this, see how the bad feelings from 1.) start to fade away. At this time also the fear from rejections is decreasing more and more.

    Reply
  19. Breaux

    This is your best post yet. My dad, who was a professional dater in Newport Beach for many years, always said that he was in the “rejection business”. He probably asked 50 women a day to go out with him and not surprisingly he had a lot of dates, some quality and some not. How does your work apply to China where I’m spending most of my time?

    Reply
  20. Steve Harmon

    Lots of examples:
    The founding of the USA is based on rejection of British rule
    They dealt with rejection of their liberty, which is a significant item

    Reply
  21. John Merrells

    The flip side is also true… people who are unable to reject get themselves stuck in bad marriages, bad jobs, etc, etc… it goes hand in hand with learned helplessness…

    Reply
  22. Danny Openheimer

    Is it rejection particularly or failure in general that people need to
    handle? If the latter sports may be a great way to train that – in most
    sports, most seasons end in failure – e.g. 31 of the 32 NFL teams either
    didn’t make the playoffs, or had their season end on a loss. There are
    victories in a season to keep you motivated, but you have to learn to deal
    with failure.

    Reply
  23. Danny Openheimer

    also, re: your tweet– Why isn’t there a science journal for failed experiments? There’s just as much to be learned from failure
    There are journals, e.g. rejecta mathematica. But most of the time failure
    in the context of science means that the results are uninterpretable. When
    failures occur that are interesting, they get published in normal journals -e.g. my work on predicting stock prices based on company names was a failed experiment looking for something else, and it made it into PNAS. Failure to get the results you were expecting can get published if the results you get are informative – in science, failure means that there’s nothing to be learned from the experiment…

    Reply
  24. Amalia Hoffman

    Hi Auren,
    Great to see that you are addressing the issue of rejection as it is a great obstacle to an individual if he or she falls apart in situations when they are rejected.
    Look at Harry Potter for example, it was rejected again and again by publishers on the ground that kids won’t read such a long book. They were all dead wrong and Scholastic who finally published the book made a fortune.
    If you look at history of inventors, you’ll find out that most of them were ridiculed and rejected continuously. Many were discouraged. If they could have triumph rejections who knows how many more inventions could have sprouted.

    Reply
  25. Jonathan Feinstein

    Auren-
    Excellent point and post.
    Rejection is a fact of life and a powerful teacher if we have the confidence to learn from it. Converting any feedback to something useful is not easy and negative feedback is particularly difficult, but it is a skill that can be learned. Here are a few tips I’ve found useful.
    Discipline yourself to consciously drop any emotional overtones and treat all responses as data to be considered. It is an interim report on today’s progress toward a larger long term goal. Stay focused on the big picture.
    Ask lots of questions. You may not like the answers, but assuming you understand another person’s reasoning is dangerous. Be polite, you will get more useful answers.
    Listen carefully and withhold judgement until you are certain what is being rejected (or accepted). It might be that the idea is flawed or it may be a problem with your presentation of the idea or even something completely unrelated and out of your control that is putting your audience into rejection mode.
    Establish a baseline by trying out your idea on a known audience. If the idea flies among your smart friends then you are better prepared to hear why someone else rejects it. This is harder than it seems because when we are excited about an idea it is difficult to remember to pause to give others the time/space to digest and respond.
    Respond carefully. How you respond to others considering your idea is also crucial to creating and maintaining a productive creative environment. It is difficult to consider all of these factors in real time, so it is particularly helpful to have a friend present to listen and give you feedback. This is also true of your audience, so leave them an opening to change their mind.
    No magic, just basic skills that get better with practice.

    Reply
  26. James Marciano

    The best advice I ever got on this subject was to remember the worst thing someone can say is “no”. (Ok, so maybe in high school there could be worse things, but in business “no” is pretty much it.) So simple, but so powerful.

    Reply
  27. Young

    Auren, generally there is a high correlation of people who can handle rejection and a history of participating in competitive sports as kids, youth, young adults. Not exclusively, but a high correlation. When you “lose” about half of your games all the time, you learn to deal with disappointment and how you have to strive to get better as an individual contributor and as a member of a team. That kind of practice leads to developing this “skill” as part of one’s character and personality – taking risks and accepting rejection becomes second nature.

    Reply
  28. Bow Rodgers

    I always enjoy sharing your business wisdom. This one on “Fear of Failure / Rejection” is no exception.
    In my view, fear of failure is a very powerful inhibitor of personal success. I also believe that like the black and white “Rejection” poster below, fear of failure becomes ingrained at a very young age. Overbearing parents and our critical surrounding environment often stifles a kids desire to try things…for fear of being reprimanded or being tagged a “loser”.
    Ironically, it is often the strongest willed young person who stays the course with their dream…and becomes the winner.

    Reply
  29. Rupert Douglas-Bate

    I have about 1,000 individual customers in my food business. To win them, I had to go through a lot of rejection. The key to surviving rejection is to always, always, always, wish the person who has rejected you the very best, just a few words will do. Then several things happen:-
    a) they sleep on it and a day later wake up and think or even feel something like “oops – i rejected that person, perhaps i’d better be nicer next time” this may or may not lead to a good outcome for you, but it certainly increases the chances
    b) you go to sleep each night with a load of positive ticks in your mind rather than negative crosses, which means you wake up each morning feeling fine
    One other thing, it’s vital to force a smile on your face regardless of circumstances. It may seem false, but it works inwards and trains the mind to be positive, regardless of what’s happening in your day.

    Reply
  30. David Friedman

    Selling door to door newspapers in high school and doing phonathon calling in college are great ways to learn how to deal with rejection. It’s what I look for in people I hire for sales.

    Reply
  31. Ani Adhikari

    This is a fascinating entry – the one on rejection – and it could of
    course also be rewritten to include failure as well as rejection. I spend
    quite some time explaining to my students that what they think is failure (“Oh my God!! I got a B?!!! I’m doomed!”) is as likely to be the thing
    that helps them make a quantum leap forward as what they think is
    success.

    Reply
  32. Ben Slick

    If this weren’t true, I would never have made it through high school!
    It’s funny, sales people choose a lifetime of rejection. It would be a fascinating character study, by vocation, to see who “embraces” rejection more frequently than not.

    Reply
  33. Mark Mullins

    Auren,
    I have consistantly seen people with powerful goals be able to blast through massive rejection time after time. So maybe teaching the power of goals is a prerequisite class. The uncompromised pursuit of a goal tends to present rejection as simply an entry fee to the party. You pay or you go home.

    Reply
  34. Syzygy

    Perhaps the best way to practice taking rejection is to practice and learn to take risks. And as Auren said above, “However, if one is working for a boss that would fire you because he’s insecure about your good ideas, then that boss doesn’t deserve you.”
    He also said having bad ideas is good. And I have to agree. A bad idea can be a simple tweak away from a phenomenal idea, and an opportunity to reflect, revisit, and revise.
    Taking risks in one’s personal and professional lives should help us learn pride, humility, and how to deal with rejection.

    Reply
  35. Syzygy

    Interesting viewpoint since most, if not all, of the posts here talk about being on the receiving end of rejection and not being able to deal with it.
    Over the last few weeks, Egyptian people have rejected Mubarak’s rule in order to (hopefully) build a new democracy befitting to them. Mubarak is not taking the rejection well, refusing to step down and finally, after doing so, falling ill.
    But by rejecting him as their leader, the Egyptian people have given themselves the opportunity to create a new Egypt.

    Reply
  36. 30vanquish

    Hi Auren,
    What worked for me was to simply let go of my own ego. The most important thing is to just do it, never take anything personal, and realize that the only way to progress is to take a shot. Taking a shot is better than sitting around. Taking a shot increases your odds to above 0%.
    For example, when it comes to asking some girl out, it’s better to receive a no than to daydream about all the hypothetical possibilities.
    You have to like yourself enough to give yourself a fighting chance. Give them (the potential date, the boss, the clerk, etc.) a chance to say no. Then you know. What if they say yes? Then your life progresses.
    I say that’s a win-win situation.
    Besides, life gets dull quickly when you’re always sitting in the back and wondering what if?

    Reply
  37. Dating Sites

    Hi,
    I read your post and in my opinion one should not feel low by thinking they will be rejected, they should have self confidence and give a chance.. They should not make negative thoughts about themselves, you never know when the right person enters your life..

    Reply
  38. Fuad Efendi

    Hahaha!
    Imagine I presented interesting approach to the problem to a team (or to the “boss”?) and at the end I ask “am I your type?” (typical question for many women on a first date)
    Funny 😉
    Each jerk can find the most receptive female (quite often gorgeous) if will act, and 99% of ” rejection rate” doesn’t make any sense.
    What about science… What is “rejection rate” in attempts to find cure against some decreases? Should we stop?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s