How to overcome fear of rejection at work

In order to overcome fear of rejection, the first step is building resilience to the word “no”.

Do you avoid sharing your ideas at work for fear of being rejected? It happens to all of us. Here's what to do about it.

By Sonakshi Babbar

Rejection, and fear of rejection, is often ranked among the most stressful everyday events that humans experience. The humiliation and pain of being rejected are so strong that they can lead to negative social interactions and disappointment in both personal and professional life.

“A fear of rejection stops people from speaking up which, in turn, impacts the perception others have about their ability to enforce boundaries and challenge the status quo,” says team performance expert Shelley Flett, author of The Dynamic Leader.

“Often they are passed over for promotions for those who are more willing to speak up.”

Research from the University of Exeter Business School has found that if people are afraid to put themselves forward for fear of seeming needy or being rejected, then many great projects, partnerships and endeavours will never occur.

“To succeed, you must learn how to cope with a little word ‘no’; learn how to strip that rejection of all its power.”  Tony Robbins, author, philanthropist and life coach

The researchers found the humiliation and pain of being rejected can cause some people to not show interest in the first place “in order to avoid the risk”.

Business coach Daniel Tolson agrees that fear of rejection and criticism is a huge impediment to success.

“People do all the hard work, but when it comes to a face-to-face with a decision-maker, they panic and put off the task,” Tolson says. “They feel insecure and worry that everyone is going to reject them.”

Understanding fear of rejection

From being rejected as a child, to a traumatic experience of rejection that deeply scarred them, the causes of fear of rejection can range from physical to social factors.

On a cognitive level, people let their defences down when feedback is positive. However, any small criticisms can become extremely powerful and are therefore remembered exceptionally well. The same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain.

Tolson identifies some common thoughts of people living in fear of rejection:

  • They won’t like me
  • I’m not good enough
  • What if they don’t like me?
  • They are going to say no
  • They are just saying that to be nice
  • They will laugh at my idea

Overcoming fear of rejection

In order to overcome fear of rejection, the first step is building resilience to the word “no”. As Tony Robbins, author, philanthropist and life coach, has famously said, “To succeed, you must learn how to cope with a little word ‘no’; learn how to strip that rejection of all its power.”

Echoing this sentiment, Flett says successful leaders are very careful not to let their “internal self-talk” overstate a situation.

“When leaders find themselves taking notice of negative self-talk around rejection, they may ask questions such as ‘What else could it mean?’,” she says. “This allows them to consider other possibilities rather than jumping to a worst case scenario.”

Flett also suggests asking questions to understand the other person’s perspective and to approach every conversation with an element of curiosity instead of judgement.

In 1985, a power struggle between Apple cofounder Steve Jobs and the company’s CEO John Sculley resulted in Jobs being removed from the company. In 2005, Jobs recalled: “I had been rejected, but I was still in love ... getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could ever have happened to me.”

Jobs is proof that rejection, if handled well, can lead to success.

Podcast: Devising decisive decisions: Learning to push past fear

Quick tips to overcome fear of rejection

1. Listen more than you speak
To be heard, we must first be prepared to hear the ideas and thoughts of others.

2. Don't tell people your goals
Negative feedback can often lead to a vicious cycle of low self-esteem and inaction. There are only two exceptions to the rule: people whose help you need in achieving your goal, and other goal oriented people.

3. Affirmations
Build up your self-esteem by saying “I like myself” in a situation where you fear rejection.

4. Don't procrastinate
Fear feeds on time; the faster you pick up the phone and make that call, the faster the fear disappears.

5. Act quickly
Say yes quickly to tasks that might be a challenge, and quickly find a way to do them.

6. Change your beliefs
When in doubt, remind yourself: “your negative opinion about me won’t change the positive belief I have of myself”. 

7. Be prepared
The fewer surprises there are, the better you’ll be at advocating for the outcome you want.

Read next: How to manage workplace burnout


Like what you're reading? Enter your email to receive the fortnightly INTHEBLACK e-newsletter.

August 2019
August 2019

Read the August 2019 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

Each month we select the must-reads from the current issue of INTHEBLACK. Read more now.

CONTENTS