Does the fear of rejection stop people from networking? Professors Jung Won Lee, ESSEC Business School, Xi Zou, Nanyang Business School, and Abigail Scholer, University of Waterloo, explore the intricacies of rejection sensitivity in an organization and why people should overcome it.
Rejection Sensitivity: The psychological cost for gaining social capital by CoBS Editor Pavan Jambai. Related research: Rejection Sensitivity and Forming New Professional Relationships, Xi Zou, Jung Won Lee, Abigail Scholer, Academy of Management ttps://doi.org/10.5465/AMBPP.2018.21
Networking, connections, and social capital are major buzzwords thrown around in the business and employment world in recent times. In fact, many firms hire a significant portion of their workforce through employee referrals. It is no longer about hiring the most qualified candidates, but about hiring candidates who fit into the culture of the company.
However, despite the numerous professional benefits, not everyone – especially the timid and sensitive among us – is equally motivated to engage in professional networking. Beyond the question of whether or not it is fair, Profs Lee, Zou, and Scholer explore what’s behind this lack of motivation – and focus on a key factor: that of our fear of rejection.
Rejection Sensitivity and the what if?
Rejection Sensitivity is a cognitive-affective processing dynamic whereby people anxiously expect, readily perceive, and intensely react to rejection signals in situations in which rejection is possible. Rejection Sensitivity is not limited to the professional setting and can extend to all areas of life.
In close relationships, rejection sensitivity can predict the extent to which a person attributes harmful intent to a new romantic partner’s insensitive behaviour. In the ethnicity arena, rejection sensitivity can predict the extent to which minority students have negative experiences when they transfer to a predominantly white university.
In the professional setting, where our interests lie, Prof. Jung Won Lee and her colleagues focus rejection sensitivity in the context of organizational hierarchy. They found that people experience rank-based rejection sensitivity and that perceived power (versus status) of a networking target is driving fear of rejection.
Hierarchy, power, and status
Even though hierarchy-less organizations are today increasing in number, the vast majority of organizations are still anchored to the traditional pyramid of Level 5 to Level 1. As such, employees naturally experience a significantly higher rejection sensitivity when seeking to form new relationships with a higher-ranking target than with a peer or a lower-ranking target. As a result, people with greater levels of rank-based rejection sensitivity develop a smaller number of higher-ranking contacts over time.
It’s worth noting that while the terms power and status might be interchangeable to a certain extent, they are not the same. Power is about an individual’s asymmetric control of resources, whereas status captures the extent to which an individual is respected and admired by others. As such, people experience a significantly greater fear of rejection when seeking to form new ties with high power versus high status targets.
Prof. Lee and her colleagues suggest that when people view the organizational rank difference through the lens of status, rather than power, they are likely to experience a lower level of rejection sensitivity. The subtle shift in attentional focus can lead to a more positive and productive interaction when networking up. When networking up, it may be beneficial to view the higher-ranking person as a source of expertise and wisdom, rather than focusing on the resources and control possessed by the person.
Moreover, rejection sensitivity is rooted in the prior experience of acceptance or rejection in a particular domain. For example, male-oriented preferential treatment in the workplace has led to higher levels of gender-based rejection sensitivity among females. In addition, rejection sensitivity has also been found to be associated with negative interpersonal outcomes across many fields and situations.
Skill vs Inclusion
In an economy where customers are critical of the values of the firms, companies are looking for a cultural fit over a qualification fit. Networking is certainly a skill – and a very beneficial one at that. Accordingly, people need to develop such soft and interpersonal skills from an early age and schools and universities would be wise to ensure educating these non-tangible skills along with hard skills.
However, a word of warning might be called for. These benefits gained from interpersonal communication skills should not be used to force people into a social setting or activity that they are not comfortable with. While gender, race, and recently sexuality inclusion has come a long way, the inclusion of the introverted and socially restricted among us still has a steep path to climb. All in all, the world until now has been constructed in such a way as benefit socially loud people. But, to offer a voice to those without the loudest shout, such a noisy world must also appreciate the power of silence.
- Link up with Jung Won Lee, Xi Zou and Abigail Scholer on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: Narcissistic CEOs: How they build their professional worlds
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