Rejection: The Project Manager's Badge of Honor in 2017
Rejection: The Project Manager's Badge of Honor in 2017
Considering the number of people they deal with every day, project managers are ripe for professional rejection. But although unpleasant, rejection can be seen as a critical warning and/or badge of honor. This post, featuring an exclusive interview with Halley Bock, author of Life, Incorporated, will explore the types of professional rejection, how you should take it in different situations, and what it means when you’re not experiencing any.

What are the different types of professional rejection?

Rejection can come in many forms – personal and professional, subjective and objective – and there isn’t much delineation except the setting in which it occurs. In the workplace, it could show up as a project abandoned, a team member suddenly disengaged or hostile, a plan hopelessly complex, a budget undermined by economic fallout, or an idea with no buy-in to support it. And while rejection can feel demeaning and frustrating, each rejection gives us the opportunity to categorize it as either a critical warning — a beacon illuminating an alternative path — or a badge of honor — a rumble meant to test internal drive.

In which situations might rejection be a warning? How can you accurately identify it as such?

Rejection may serve as a critical warning when we either repeatedly experience it in a particular situation. This perhaps indicates a need for us to alter our behavior and/or approach. Or, when despite all of our best laid plans, roadblocks and issues persist. In my experience as a CEO, nine out of 10 times, rejections were due to extenuating forces that had nothing to do with the validity, cleverness, or implementation of the effort itself. Instead, ideas didn’t work when they were ill-timed. Strategies didn’t pan out when there was a shift coming around the corner that would change everything. Relationships stalled when we were coming together for the wrong reasons.

Turns out, rejection was the universe’s way of saying: “Not now. Something else needs to happen first.” When I learned to listen to the resistance and let go of a preconceived outcome, the organization hardly missed a beat and simply kept growing. I stopped thinking of rejections in terms of failed strategies. Instead, they were simply ideas ahead of their time.

On the other hand, if I received the same negative feedback or rejection after repeated attempts at a particular idea, project, or relationship, then it was time to take inventory of the situation. I could either decide that, despite the rejection by others, my passion for a particular idea still resonated deeply. In this case, I continued to pursue it provided that no one would pay an emotional or financial price for my efforts. Or, I would step back, evaluate my approach, and make adjustments in order to get better results.

How should you address rejection in different situations?

Should you perceive a rejection as a critical warning where adjustments in behavior, direction, and strategy are required, an attitude and mindset of curiosity is the most essential tool.

If you are in a situation in which your idea is meeting heavy resistance, lean into the resistance and genuinely ask for feedback. Maybe the way in which you are pitching your idea is unclear or contains too much bravado. Or, your quiet nature has wrongly been perceived as aloof and arrogant. The only way to find out is to ask.

Use questions like: “Dan, I admire your opinion and have noticed your success in getting teams behind your ideas. Would you be willing to give me feedback on my idea and the way in which I am putting it forward?” Or: “Sarah, in our conversation last week, you seemed frustrated and impatient with me. It’s important to me that our working relationship is solid. Would you mind telling me if my perception was accurate and, if so, what you might suggest for a more positive interaction next time?” Regardless of the answers you receive, you can decide how much feedback to take or leave.

Project managers work with a lot of different people, some of whom resent their mere presence. By sheer virtue of their existence, they are often rejected. What are some tips for this group regarding staying emotionally healthy and professionally effective?

Not all vocations come with warm feelings attached, and it sounds like project management might be one such vocation. Therefore, project managers should expand their audience’s view beyond mere job titles and the assumptions that go along with it. Make an effort to connect with your teams on a more personal level so they can be reminded of your humanity. Offer to take team members out for coffee or schedule short meetings with each person. Your goal should be to understand what’s important to them and how they are emotionally connected to their work. Then, draw connections between your role and this person’s vision of success so they come to see you as an ally rather than a hindrance.

If an environment remains hostile despite your best attempts, address the issue with your manager and explore how the two of you can create greater organizational buy-in.

What are some signs that a rejection-oriented culture in your organization might be getting out of hand? What can leaders do to nip this in the bud?

While cynicism can be healthy in small doses, it creates lethal levels of toxicity when occurring at a high rate. If ideas are constantly met with endless layers of red tape and there is greater resistance to the word “yes” than the word “no,” your organization may have tipped the scales. There is, after all, a difference between a mentality of wise discrimination and one that simply stifles innovation and growth.

Leaders should revisit their mission and vision statements along with their core values to gain clarity on where they have drifted and how to best reset the course. If your organization hasn’t spent time with these big picture concepts to begin with, this is a terrific opportunity to craft and share them with the organization. A positive culture begins with understanding an organization’s purpose, and if this isn’t firmly entrenched and continuously acknowledged and acted upon, negativity will creep in and take over.

If you aren’t experiencing rejection at all, what does that mean and what should you do differently?

I’ve always viewed rejection as a healthy component to all facets of life, personal and professional. Just as running into competitors validates an organization’s market, running into rejection validates our continued commitment to challenging and bettering ourselves while remaining authentic in our approach. If you aren’t experiencing rejection, then you might be donning various costumes and behaviors and shape-shifting into personas that others approve of, thus living non-authentically. Or, you could simply be playing it too safe. The solution to either scenario? Take some risks and celebrate rejection. It means you are being true to yourself, your beliefs, and your unique contributions.