No one likes rejection, yet we all experience it. Even when you do everything “right,” business and career opportunities may not turn out like you had hoped due to factors beyond your control. Whether or not you could have done more or differently, it’s important to know how to handle rejection as professionally as possible.
Do you allow the disappointment to derail your advancement or use it to fuel improvement and growth? Do you demonstrate strength of character or sore loser tendencies? How well you handle rejection can influence impressions on stakeholders and impact future opportunities.
Rejection can feel awful -- especially when related to something you worked hard for -- but the sting is temporary. Allow yourself time to process the outcome. It’s normal to feel disappointed and frustrated. It's also perfectly ok to vent a little, but be careful of what you say. It's best to wait and think before reacting so you don’t regret it later. Heightened emotions will reduce in time, but a hot-headed or self-deprecating response in conversation, email or social media post may not be forgotten so quickly.
When rejection hits you hard, try to shift perspective. Do something that makes you happy or boosts your confidence. This distraction will help you work through the disappointment and move forward.
Even if you made great impressions on a potential client, hiring manager or referral partner -- and followed up in all the right ways -- they can choose someone else for reasons that have nothing to do with you. When this happens, don’t question their judgment or say anything negative about them to others. (Even if you think you’re just sharing your experience, you never know who people know, and news can travel quickly.)
Instead, end communication on a respectful high note. Convey disappointment in a brief and professional way, leaving a positive impression and the door open if circumstances change. First decisions are not always final ones. When you respond graciously, people are more likely to remember you and contact you again -- sometimes sooner than you think -- such as:
While rejection feels particularly bitter when you think you’ve done everything right, if it keeps happening, ask yourself: Am I really doing everything right? Self-awareness is critical for improvement and growth. Own your mistakes and learn from them.
Answering these questions objectively is challenging, so if it’s possible (and appropriate), try to obtain constructive feedback. It’s ok to inquire, for example, when you know someone who can easily find out why a potential client went with a competitor. Or, if you worked with a recruiter for a job opportunity, it's ok to ask them to share feedback (which they normally receive) from the company.
There are other instances, however, where it's better to avoid probing, such as if a client informs you that they selected another firm for a project due to their expertise with the area. In a job search, if a hiring manager says they went with a candidate who was a better fit for the role because of their parallel experience with a competitor, leave the conversation there too.
If you receive feedback, accept it with gratitude and use it as a catalyst for improvement. Sharpen presentation skills, for instance, or seek guidance how to handle sticky business situations better (especially if your actions cost business in the past). Adopt prompt response time as a personal best practice, especially when balancing multiple opportunities with potential employers. Remember, constructive criticism is not intended to insult. It's provided to help address weak points so you know how to succeed the next time.
The pain of rejection won’t last forever, so don’t let it derail efforts to move forward. You may feel discouraged, but don’t complain constantly about it. Negativity deters people from connecting or recommending you to others. It can also drag your team down. In contrast, staying positive and determined when you’ve faced adversity can boost morale and motivate others.
Look at rejection as an opportunity to learn valuable insights about the people and companies you met and, very importantly, about yourself. Reflect on what went well and what you can do better next time. Leave contacts with a great impression of you and your company. When you handle rejection well, a meeting that doesn’t end like you had hoped today can still set the stage for a successful opportunity tomorrow.