Can You Help Your Employees Overcome “Rejection Sensitivity”?

That crushing, immobilizing feeling when a manager or colleague isn’t satisfied with your work is something many of us are familiar with. I still don’t handle rejection well, but as a young person, the least criticism could demotivate me. Rather than wanting to ramp up to do better, I would feel disheartened and frozen. Some of your employees, who otherwise may have high potential, could be like my young self.

I saw an article online last week from the Deccan Herald on dealing with rejection in the workplace. The author, Aruna Sankaranarayanan, reports on a phenomenon known as rejection sensitivity: “In an article published in Scientific American, Jade Wu claims that everyone is hurt by rejection; however, the rejection-sensitive perceive slights, whether intentional or otherwise, more readily, and react more intensely. Additionally, brain studies show that everyone’s emotional areas get triggered by rejection. However, for those low in rejection sensitivity, their self-control areas also are concomitantly activated. On the other hand, the cognitive control areas of people who are extremely sensitive to rejection don’t light up. As a result, they don’t exhibit adequate self-regulation when they have been stung by rejection.”

Is there a way to know when you hire people if they are challenged by rejection sensitivity? One way to find out would be to ask applicants to tell you a story about when they were rejected or experienced a strong critique in the workplace and how they dealt with the situation. In particular, a hiring manager would want to encourage applicants to explain how they used the critique to do better, rather than allowing the criticism to cause them to freeze.

My own hypothesis is that rejection sensitivity can stem from insecurity and past traumatic experiences. Some people are simply more sensitive than others, but there may be many people who fall within a mid-level range of rejection sensitivity so that their experiences could either lower that sensitivity level or heighten it. As a child, I was a daydreamer who infuriated adults trying to teach me—anything. As a result, many lost patience with me, becoming angry when I didn’t follow directions or when I repeatedly made a mistake they had repeatedly corrected. What if the adults I had experienced as a child had never lost their temper with me? Maybe then I wouldn’t have been primed to panic and freeze when the young adult me was given a critique at work.

When you hire employees, they come with baggage like my own. One way to offset that baggage is through a corporate culture that emphasizes patience and encourages trial and error, so that errors are forgivable as long as they lead to improvement. A great way for a company to embrace a culture that uses mistakes as a form of growth, rather than of judgment, is for executives to model that behavior. What if, at the end of every year, your executives shared one mistake, misjudgment, or point of enlightenment they had experienced over the last 12 months? If employees can see that top executives have learned themselves that there is a better way to do something, or learned that a former belief or approach was not the best, the rest of the company may follow suit. You may find employees become less hesitant to admit when they have made a mistake and are more open to critiques designed to facilitate improvement.

It also may be worthwhile to train managers on the subtle signals that can trigger a sensitive person when delivering criticism. Sometimes those signals seem silly to a less sensitive person. My former boss’ use of all capital letters when leaving comments in articles I wrote made me angry. The capital letters made me feel like I was being yelled at. I would have preferred red type, although I’m sure red type triggers other sensitive people.

When employees join a work group, it’s helpful to ask how they like receiving feedback. Some people do better with written feedback than others. My guess is those who are less sensitive do better with written critiques. Feedback that can feel severe and brusque in writing can be softened by a kind face-to-face delivery. A face-to-face delivery, or delivery over the phone or virtually, also gives the manager a chance to gauge how the employee is taking it.

Sensitive people are often highly creative, imaginative, reflective, and intuitive. Those are all traits that serve a business well. Be sure your culture, and the way you train managers, isn’t shutting down people with those traits.

How do you train employees to deliver feedback and criticism? How do you ensure all personality types—including the most sensitive—are able to effectively use the critiques?

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