Here is an excerpt from an article written by Ron Carucci for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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A managing partner I consult with at a large professional services firm, let’s call him Evan, was recently dealt a painful blow: a high seven-figure proposal he was certain his team landed got awarded to the competition.
Evan’s career was a storied rise to stardom. An Ivy-league graduate, he was intelligent, personable, and beloved by the firm. Consultants clamored to be on his project teams. He’d had his fair share of setbacks, but by and large, things mostly went his way. When we met on the evening he learned of the decision, I was struck by how devastated he was. Though he’d lost other deals before, he’d clearly attached much deeper meaning to this loss. This wasn’t disappointment. It was grief.
In my experience working with especially successful leaders, I’ve seen a paradox in their response to major rejection. They tend to over-personalize it, sometimes debilitatingly so, followed by a tenacious redoubling of their efforts to rise above it. And in both of those extremes, I’ve watched leaders miss opportunities to grow and learn.
Vying for a major promotion or new job, selling big ticket offerings, or pitching high-stakes ideas to your boss, are all potential places for significant rejection. Here are some strategies to help you overcome the tendency to internalize it and effectively channel your herculean grit so that you can walk away with new insights about yourself and the future successes you’ll pursue.
Understand the role of anticipation.
Successful people are often conditioned to expect positive outcomes. They visualize great results, remain optimistic in the face of high odds, and are often rewarded for their never-say-die tenacity.
Evan’s anticipation of winning the proposal was palpable, especially after the client signaled it was a likely outcome. He talked passionately about the impact the team would have, and what he anticipated it would mean for his career. And while most positive psychology urges us to visualize success, over-anticipation can actually intensify the pain of rejection when things don’t turn out as hoped.
When our brains anticipate a desired outcome, we can feel as though success has already happened. But this kind of anticipation can fuel false confidence, obscuring objectivity about how things are actually going. Evan’s reflections on the five-month proposal process revealed signals he’d overlooked because he was so focused on the signals that matched his growing narrative of winning. Visualizing success is a helpful tool to inspire our teams and stay focused on a goal. The key is to never allow your visualization to morph into expectation, or you could be setting yourself up for magnified pain if things don’t work out as hoped.
Acknowledge the pain without falling victim to it.
When it comes to the pain of rejection, many successful people either bury it, or overindulge it, neither of which is productive. The first thing to do with pain is to let yourself feel it. The heartache of rejection is a signal you are grieving the loss of something you wanted badly. If you suppress the pain, it will only return in a potentially destructive form later, like excessive drinking or angry outbursts.
On the other extreme, over-indulging pain often manifests as blame or entitlement. We find fault with the decision maker or those we relied on for help. We become snide or dismissive toward others’ success, feeling as though we’ve been robbed. These victimized responses can cement us to our pain, making it more difficult to move on.
Acknowledging the pain means honestly naming what you are disappointed to have lost. This is especially effective when done in the company of a trusted ally who will listen quietly without needing to talk us out of our pain or “fix things.” For Evan, closing an engagement this big was his steppingstone to a global managing director role. Naming that loss honestly helped him accept there would be other opportunities to do so in the coming years. This rejection didn’t end that dream, it just delayed it. Once you’ve addressed the emotional pain in a healthy way, you can turn your attention to learning what you can from the experience.
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