5 Fears of Mid-Level Leaders — Fear of Rejection

Nov 22, 2023. By Lori Brewer Collins

Wyoming Pioneer Pines by Jake Brewer

“I really didn’t expect this. I’ll admit that I’m used to being liked by the people around me — and I’m used to people going along with my proposals and my ideas on what should be done. But I’ve run into a wall. I’m hitting obstacles that I’ve never encountered before. Suddenly, everything I say and do is being scrutinized. I feel like I’m living in a glass house and people are taking shots at me. Last week, I went into a meeting where we were unveiling a major new initiative, and three of the people I thought would back my idea suddenly turned on me and raised major objections. What’s going on here?”


What if they don’t like me?

You probably have some Angelas in your organization. They’re the emerging, high-potential leaders who are used to winning people over and being liked by one and all. Until sometime right about now, everyone responded positively to their ideas. Now they don’t. What changed?

Angela is discovering that, as her role responsibilities increase, so too does her isolation. In previous roles in her career, people “liked” her. But in her current role, she is encountering a lot of unexpected resistance coming from all directions. Not only is she receiving overt criticisms and bigger doses of disapproval, but she is also making up insidious stories in her head about covert sabotage. She feels as if people are scrutinizing, chopping up, and judging every decision she makes. Bottom line: she feels as if she’s being rejected by her former peers and new bosses.

Leadership is not a popularity contest: it is a teacher. It will put the essence of who you are and everything you have learned so far, as well as all the things you need to ‘unlearn,’ to the test.

What’s at Risk?

Leaders who don’t properly address this fear tend to withdraw and seek minimal interaction with colleagues because they’re anxious about what is being said behind their backs. Where once they experienced a clear sense of belonging, now they feel isolated. Scrutiny from colleagues chokes out any sense of community that once defined their place in the organization. They miss being “part of the tribe” and having a place in which they can authentically “be themselves”.

They are also prone to making up stories and drawing conclusions that may or may not be true. Because they have isolated themselves, they don’t challenge their own assumptions so they can act on accurate information. Instead, they let their stories and conclusions drive their decisions and actions, which creates a downward spiral.

These leaders need to be conscious of their feelings of victimhood and, using a new lens, choose to respond differently. They must take the focus off themselves and their feelings, engage in new ways of communicating that exemplify curiosity and a genuine openness to learning, and ask what would be helpful to the group in the moment.

Key Issues & Challenges

  • Mastering how to diplomatically insert yourself into meetings to have more influence
  • Knowing what to say when
  • Making and implementing unpopular decisions
  • Handling conflict with peers and direct reports
  • Surviving the challenges of the business environment

Antidotes to the Fear of Rejection

1. Strengthen your center.

If this is the fear you’re facing, you must discover how to tap into and grow your own center.

Reflect on what you need to accept about yourself as a leader, what you need to let go of, and what you need to change.

Develop the gravitas to know when something is a legitimate issue and when you’re dealing with someone else transferring their pain onto you. Objectively assess comments and chatter from colleagues. Some of it might be true. Much of it is false. Decide if you will spend your energy trying to manage how people perceive you. Concentrate on what you can control and choose how you will engage.

While leaders sometimes must confront people who are undermining team efforts and causing significant problems, often the issues are so petty and unrelated to legitimate work priorities that they aren’t worth being addressed. Do you want to be right—or do you want to be effective? It’s more advantageous to focus your attention on simply moving forward and developing a consistent pattern of behavior that can be used to build trust and respect. In this kind of situation, actions truly do speak louder than words.

2. Learn how to enlist and engage.

In every situation and every decision, leaders will have people who are their allies and associates, their detractors and adversaries.

Being respected and being a person of integrity is more important than being liked. You may have heard that statement before, but it’s the key to success and growth when facing this fear. You must find ways to enlist and engage colleagues—even those who don’t like you. Effective leaders have developed the savvy to recognize that building coalitions and working the politics, as much as you say you hate power plays, can be a positive tool to get good things done. Fortunately or unfortunately, the reality in organizations is that, if you’re in the game, you need to know the written and unwritten rules in order to play.

Trust plays an interesting role in enlistment and engagement. How much of your sense of trust is about character and how much is about predictability? In a way, you can have a higher level of “trust” with an adversary because you can predict how an adversary will act and react: there’s little uncertainty about their behavior and attitude. Adversaries deliver their rationale for opposing a project or change initiative, and you can use that rationale to build a better case. Trust becomes trickier when working with someone who exudes a high level of open agreement but is acting differently behind the scenes.

Photo Credit: Wyoming Pioneer Pines by Jake Brewer

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