How to Deliver Rejection Right

Saying “no” to staffers is part of the executive’s job, but rejections work better if they serve less as dismissals and more as check-in opportunities.

Books designed to inspire people in the business world are often larded with tales of rejection. Famous novelist X had her novel rejected by dozens of publishers before finding a sympathetic one; world-beating entrepreneur Y had doors slammed in his face countless times before hitting the jackpot with one smart investor.

As arguments for the virtue of persistence, such stories are valuable enough. But those anecdotes rarely get into an interesting and under-discussed aspect of rejection: How were those rejections delivered, and what helped those brilliant people persevere in spite of them?

If you know you need to shoot down an idea, that’s a chance to open up a broader discussion.

Being a leader means spending a lot of time saying “no” to ideas, but leaders don’t always spend a lot of time also thinking about what that “no” requires of them. As a small way of fixing that, it might help to consider what’s running through the mind of those who’ve just had their ideas torpedoed. There’s a good glimpse into that in a recent Fast Company article titled “Your Boss Just Rejected Your Idea? Ask These Three Questions Right Away.”

Before we go any further, an aside to the just-rejected idea-generator: Don’t do anything “right away.” Bosses know when they’ve delivered a blow, and as an employee you’re undoubtedly stung at least a little. Anything done immediately, however well-meaning, will almost certainly be interpreted as something done in the heat of the moment. But using rejection as an opportunity to better understand your professional relationship is good advice—you certainly shouldn’t do nothing—and the article proposes three solid questions to ask: “What would make you say yes to this idea?” “Would it make sense for me to bring it up again in a few weeks/months?” And “What should I focus on instead?”

From the perspective of the CEO, these questions are valuable prompts. Flip them back to your perspective as a leader: They suggest that the people who work for you want transparency about the quality of their thinking (maybe it was a good idea, but badly formulated), about the structure and plans of the organization (maybe it was a good idea, but a bad fit because of timing), and about their job roles (maybe it was a good idea, but generated by the wrong person). In short, the employee—or board member, or other stakeholder—wants feedback from you. And every rejection is an opportunity to deliver that feedback.

It may help to think of those awkward moments of rejection as a check-in opportunity. I’ve written before about how the annual performance review is a source of dread for many workers, with too few opportunities for bosses and employees to talk about their job roles before those discussions. So if you know you need to shoot down an idea, that’s a chance to open up a broader discussion about the issues the employee is inevitably thinking about—which is what they’ll need to do to launch as successful idea at the organization.

Avoiding that conversation has consequences. We already know that in a D&I context, substantial proportions of people who say they’ve experienced bias at the office are likely to withhold their ideas at the office and start looking for another job. That’s likely a similar experience among those who feel that they aren’t receiving feedback on their ideas.

All the more reason, then, to treat those moments of rejection not as fraught and stormclouded but as ways to further a conversation with somebody who’s eager to contribute. In a 2015 Harvard Business Review article on difficult workplace conversations, author Holly Weeks and professor Jean-Francois Manzoni cautioned against going into such discussions fearing the worst. “Try ‘framing it in a positive, less binary’ way, suggests Manzoni. For instance, you’re not giving negative performance feedback; you’re having a constructive conversation about development. You’re not telling your boss: no; you’re offering up an alternate solution. ‘A difficult conversation tends to go best when you think about it as a just a normal conversation,’ says Weeks.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. But ultimately what everybody wants is good ideas in your organization—being open about what works and what doesn’t is one way to make sure they emerge.

(BernardaSv/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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