How to Deal With Rejection at Work

Experiencing rejection is painful but a potential learning experience, too.

Employee's work being rejected by their supervisor.

Judith Haeusler / Getty Images

Have you experienced rejection at work? You can experience rejection for many reasons. They all have one thing in common. Being rejected is painful, but, many instances of rejection are opportunities for learning, too.

You can only accomplish these two tasks: learning and responding to the intended message. If you are willing to practice personal courage and seek out feedback following your rejection, you can do both.

Examples of Workplace Rejection

Actual rejection and feelings of rejection occur in a variety of work-related situations. In fact, rejection comes from big and small events and activities. Rejection can hit you unexpectedly or you can anticipate it based on the odds of your winning a sought-after contract. You can experience rejection when you:

  • Did not receive an applied-for promotion,
  • Not selected for a plum assignment,
  • Failed to receive an invitation to a popular coworker’s party,
  • Were turned down for a date by an attractive colleague,
  • Not assigned to a desirable, highly visible project for which you applied,
  • Had your boss cancel her fourth weekly meeting in a row with you,
  • Lost a sale to a competitor,
  • Received a smaller than anticipated salary increase,
  • Had a significant coworker take credit for a project you contributed to, or
  • Were publicly blamed and criticized for errors in a proposal.

Dealing With Rejection at Work

You can learn to deal effectively with rejection. You may never control the sad and unhappy feelings that accompany rejection at work, but you can become much more comfortable dealing with rejection. Taking rejection personally makes being rejected much more difficult for you emotionally. It’s much better to step back from the feelings of personal rejection and consider the circumstances as objectively as you can.

Here are the seven steps you need to take to deal with rejection at work.

Bolster Your Courage

You’re probably feeling pretty low as a result of the rejection. So, you need to work on you, first. Give yourself a pep talk. If your internal voice is expressing negativity, tell the voice that it is wrong.

Think about all of the positives that you will experience if you are courageous and seek to learn everything that you can about the causes of and circumstances of your rejection.

Recognize that rejection can be fair and impartial. Perhaps the candidate was more qualified than you for the opportunity. Maybe your coworker is already in a long-term relationship. Perhaps your coworker has consistently not been called on the carpet for negative behavior in the past—because other employees were unwilling to practice professional courage.

Whatever the reason, you will never understand and deal with rejection if you can’t gather the courage to hit it head-on.

Manage Your Emotions

Sure, you feel bad. But, you won’t receive reasonable feedback from a coworker or boss if you cry through the meeting. If you are angry and you let it seep into the conversation, you will experience the same. Most coworkers don’t want to cause you pain. 

If your coworker or boss feels as if pain and an emotional outburst are the results of their conversation with you, they will give you less feedback. Or, worse, the feedback you receive will be so sanitized that it is rarely actionable or relevant. Worst of all? Your boss or coworkers will feel manipulated by your emotions; this is never a positive factor for your performance improvement, prospects within your company, or opportunities after an initial rejection. 

Ask for Feedback and Gather Information

Maybe you do drive your coworkers or your manager crazy with your negative approach to work. Perhaps you do expend so much energy on picky details that project teams don’t want to work with you. Maybe you have bragged about your successes and goals so often that coworkers avoid you and don’t support you.

Now is the time to figure out why you were rejected. If you are open to receiving feedback and demonstrate this openness to coworkers, you will receive a lot of feedback. If you argue, deny, blame, or attack the person giving you feedback, that well will instantly dry up. 

Learn From Rejection

Process all of the information that you received from your solicitations for feedback. Try to maintain openness to learning from what you are told rather than automatically rejecting the feedback.

In the midst of all of the words that people use to inform you of your shortcomings or the better qualifications of another employee, look for kernels of information that you can use.

If you automatically reject the information, you won’t learn and you won’t be able to change your performance or behavior. Hearing less than positive feedback about yourself is difficult. You are human and your emotions are involved.

Ask for Clarification When Needed

People who provide feedback are human, too. They may gloss over your shortcomings because of their own discomfort. So, you need to listen to what they are not saying, too. Ask specific questions to learn more.

Remember, you have the right to reject part or all of the feedback depending on whether you believe it is real and useful. But, do learn from whatever information you receive. Use whatever information you can to be ready when the next opportunity arises.

Take Positive Action to Develop or Change

Make a plan for yourself, and perhaps involve your manager in the discussion, depending on the quality of the relationship. Identify co-workers who will give you feedback about improvement. Begin making the necessary changes.

Depending on what advice you received, you may have a list of action steps to prepare yourself for the next opportunity. For example, with or without company tuition assistance, attend the needed classes if that was the deficiency noted in your rejection.

Work with your manager to identify ways in which you can gain the experience needed for the promotion or lateral opportunity. The key is to make and implement your plan.

Reach Out If You Can't Make the Change on Your Own

Needed concrete work actions that have little to do with improving your performance can follow a rejection, too. If you discover that your pricing will not beat the competition, work with the appropriate people to change the pricing.

Confront the coworker who took credit for your work and let them know that you will not tolerate it in the future. When you work with this coworker again, take care to monitor the behavior and make certain that your boss is aware of the situation. Don't let repeat behavior from others keep you down.

Make Your Progress Known

Nobody is closely monitoring your progress and experience. Your coworkers and managers have too much else to do in their own jobs. So, it is important, and in your best interests, that you toot your own horn occasionally. Not obnoxiously, but do let influential coworkers know what you are doing to improve.

Mention the coursework you are undertaking to your boss or to a team leader you admire. Meet with the manager from whom you received the initial rejection to let him or her know your improvement plan. In addition to drawing his or her attention to your efforts, you are signaling that when you ask for advice, you take it. The manager will react positively to your improvement efforts.

Seek Some Solace and Sympathy

Just make sure that the sympathy you seek is short term. Sympathy can't get in the way of you doing the things you need to do to be prepared when the next opportunity comes your way.

No one likes a whiner, so whine just a little, and then move on. That next opportunity is waiting just beyond your current field of vision. Be ready when it arrives.

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