By Jia Jiang, Founder, 100 Days of Rejection
Picture this: You just hired a new member to your new team three weeks ago, and he was about to finish his onboarding process. He was full of ideas and ambition, and wanted to use his innovation and energy to make a major contribution to your team.
In your second one-on-one meeting, he proposed a new idea: to use a department bi-weekly internal newsletter to socialize your team’s goal and achievements, in order to improve morale and gain familiarity and buy-in from colleagues at large. You thought the idea was brilliant too, and encouraged him to do it.
But two weeks later, nothing happened. You thought: “maybe he’s still learning everything and he’s taking his time”. A month later, still nothing happened. In your one-on-ones, he talked about everything else on the job but his new idea which he pitched to you hard and you supported with equal enthusiasm. “Well maybe he’s too busy on the job, and he already forgot about it,” you thought to yourself.
So you never asked the question again until much, much later, in your performance review with the employee, and mentioned that he never followed up on his own idea. He’s got nothing to say but “sorry”. At that time, he got so busy and his priority had shifted a long time ago. Nothing came out of this idea that you thought could be brilliant.
So what happened here? Did you do anything wrong? You supported him in that one-on-one meeting. I mean, it was his idea, so he should have taken the total ownership of the idea, right? Was he just a slacker?
The answer is, he was afraid of rejection and failure.
Quickly after pitching the idea, he started crafting his newsletter. But halfway, he started doubting himself “what if this doesn’t work? What if the whole department would see this as self-promotion for the team and a waste of their valuable time and mailbox space? My name would be on the newsletter and associated with the failure. What if my manager gets mad at me? I’m new to the job, maybe I should just put my head down and work on my assigned tasks and gain credibility first.” The painful memories of his previous public failures and rejections, going all the way to elementary school started being whispered in his ears, and he saved the half-done newsletter and waited for a better time.
That time never came. The newsletter was never completed.
And that new employee was me.
Even today my manager has no idea what happened, because I wasn’t going to tell her about my fear of rejection.
Managers, don’t think this won’t happen to your team and employees. And employees, don’t think this won’t happen to you. Why? Because we are all afraid of rejection (especially public ones), and it’s one of the most fundamental fears that hold us back in our business and careers.
That newsletter episode happened to me four years ago, and I have since become a much different person. I founded my own company and became a blogger and author. I talked to thousands of professionals around the world through speaking engagements and social media, and I discovered how subtle but devastating our fear of rejection can be in the work place. It turned out I wasn’t the only person afraid of rejection. Everyone was. In all businesses big or small, ideas were dropped prematurely, open communications were stymied, and business opportunities were lost.
So what do you do, whether you are the manager or the employee? Here are some practices I’ve discovered that can mitigate this fear for your team.
1. Recognize the fear and discuss it openly – It is often said that awareness is the first step to solving the issue. Yes, the fear of rejection is one fear that no one, I mean literally NO ONE would discuss with their colleagues and managers. It means showing weakness, which we assume is a no-no at work. However, Dr. Brene Brown famously linked vulnerability with courage and effective leadership. Starting with your own example, discuss the possibility of failure/rejection of a project as well as the potential fear that can come with it. By opening yourself up, you can encourage others to do the same. If you both realize the existence of fear, it’s much easier to move forward with your projects and ideas.
2. Treat ideas like possibilities and number games – If we think of success/failure, or acceptance/rejection as binary outcomes, then our mind becomes a battle between our desire for the positive outcome vs our fear of the negative outcome. In many cases, fear would win out. But if we think of possibilities and give ourselves multiple chances, then we would have successfully developed a runway for an idea to play out. For example, had my manager and I discussed the probability of the newsletter becoming a success, set metrics to measure its success, and the number of times we would try to send the newsletter to gauge its success, then the fear almost automatically goes away.
3. Celebrate actions, not results – “Results-oriented” is one of the most over-used buzzwords on LinkedIn profiles and resumes. It is also a motto we often live by at work. However, by focusing solely on results, we often fall back to what has proven to work in the past, instead of experimenting with what might work in the future. If results are the only measure-stick for performance, we inevitably encourage safety and discourage innovation. However, if a team openly celebrates actions and experiments, especially the ones that fail and get rejected, it would foster a whole new culture of innovation for the entire team.
In the end, understand that fear is one of the strongest psychological factors that affects human beings. Controlling fear is crucial to make your team rejection proof.
Do you have stories of ideas being squashed by fear of rejection and failure? Share with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.