Learning from Letdowns

How many times has this happened to you? You have a great idea. No, make that a brilliant idea. You heard about an issue the company is having in your morning staff meeting on Monday, and by Thursday afternoon, you’ve cracked the code.

Excited, you rush down to your boss’ desk. She’s in the middle of looking at something your co-worker Gary gave her to review an hour ago, but she looks like she could put it aside for a minute. After all, you’ve just found a way to solve the company’s problem! It’ll be a great save for your manager, who you already know will be on board, and it will be your first major contribution to the company since you joined a year ago.

This is finally your time! You can feel your heart racing as you lay out all of your plans for the golden fix. You’ve thought it all through and you know this plan is a winner.

But your manager puts down Gary’s papers, seems to consider your proposal for a few seconds, and the drops the bomb. “I’m sorry. I just don’t see how that would work the way you put it.”

You’re devastated. All the energy and midnight candle-burning you’ve put into your idea seems to be sucked out of you all at once. You say, “Oh, okay. Yeah, it was just something I was thinking about,” and then you slink back to your desk, defeated. The day seems to drag on forever and when you finally get in your car to go home that night, you’re not sure you accomplished a single thing that day.

We all get disappointed. And one of the harshest truths to learn in business is that you can hear a lot of “No’s” before you hear a “Yes.” That’s a trope that everyone hears eventually, but there’s almost never a follow-up lesson on how to take that advice and learn from it. Hearing “No,” hurts. It’s not just our pride that gets knocked down a peg when our ideas get rejected, but it’s also an implosion of all the time and energy we put into our own ideas when we get excited.

Especially true of young professionals (see previous articles), most employees in a business aren’t just along for the ride. They want to contribute and help their company succeed. And when someone thinks they’ve found a way to do that, they become more invested in the business than every. The same is true whether a person’s idea is reorganizing an office labeling system or establishing an entire new product division. When you have an idea, you put energy into it, and if that idea is shot down, all that energy you invested feels like a waste.

The truth is, there’s not a catch-all solution to make people buy-into every idea you have. Budgets are sometimes restricted, resources get tangled up, and sometimes people love your ideas, but just don’t have the time to help support you in exploring them. So if we can’t completely eliminate the possibility of hearing “No,” is there anything we can do to learn from the letdowns? As you might’ve guess by the title of this article, there is indeed!

In the scenario I painted above, I would argue that the worst part was not actually the rejection of the person’s idea, but the fact that they felt so depleted by the rejection that their work suffered and they left the conversation feeling defeated rather than encouraged to try a different approach. Oftentimes a first approach is just that, a draft that needs a revision. And the worst thing that can happen when we put our ideas out for consideration is that we feel disheartened to try again if they get turned down. Being rejected will always sting, but there are ways to learn from letdowns and find the silver-lining within a rejection.

1) Yes, Timing Matters:

In the scenario we started with, you picked an interesting time to mention your idea to your boss. You noticed she was at her desk instead of locked away in a meeting like she usually is, and she didn’t seem to be doing anything tremendously important.

The part you didn’t know however, was that Gary had given your boss a proposal to review that was full of errors and had a due date by the end of the day. (Classic Gary, am I right?) The proposal was for a major deal with a new client and your boss was under a lot of stress to try and fix this proposal so it could be out the door by 5:00pm.

She didn’t look like she was stressed, but she was. And when you came to her desk full of excitement and energy about something that wasn’t relevant to her current problem, you were actually the last thing she needed to be dealing with right now. But she’s a good manager, and she put down Gary’s proposal to hear you out. When she heard some gaps you hadn’t thought all the way through, she let you know that she didn’t see how the idea, as it currently was presented, could work.

You were so stunned by the “No,” you didn’t hear her invitation to try and revise your proposal and then she’d get back with you.

In business, timing really does matter. And not just for those of us who trade stocks or try to predict the future. When you have an idea, it matters to you and excites you. And our natural tendency is to rush into an immediate conversation with our managers about it to try and share our excitement. But the truth is that in this scenario, the more pressing need was Gary’s proposal, not your idea. And because your manager was under the gun, she didn’t have time to walk you through her initial reactions. She needed to get her work done, and the abrupt “No,” made you feel like she dismissed you off-hand.

If an idea is not time-sensitive and you want meaningful feedback, you are better off either trying to engage someone over a cup of coffee in the cafeteria (if you’re just brainstorming), or by setting up a scheduled meeting. It takes time to convey a message and have someone engage with it, and impromptu situations are not always the best place to pitch them.

2) Be Clear as Crystal: 

Ideas are funny. What might seem crystal clear to you, might seem vague and uncertain to your audience. Here’s an example. Say you’re having lunch with your co-workers and suddenly an idea pops into your head. You say, “Hey guys, what if we rearranged the social media marketing schedule for next week?” In your mind, you’re already “there,” but your co-workers are left only thinking, “Why?”

Whether you’re presenting your ideas formally or informally, clarity can mean the difference between getting buy-in and reaction to your idea or simply getting a vague, “Yeah, I guess we could.”

Take the same situation. Instead of starting off with a broad stroke of proposing a change to the social media schedule, start by saying why exactly you need to change it in the first place.

“Hey guys, you know how Sharon wants us to increase ad exposure over the next three months in Seattle? Well, I was thinking that if we tweaked the successful campaigns we ran in Boston last year around public school Spring Break a bit, that might be an interesting way to drive traffic to our website in the new market. What do you think?”

Now, you probably aren’t that formal with your friends around a lunch table, but you can see the difference that the more context you provide in the idea, the easier it is for your listeners to follow your train of thoughts and respond to your ideas.

3) Don’t Let Good Ideas Die in Vain:

Lastly, the most important way to prevent future rejections is to take the time to learn why you received a “No” in the first place. The vast majority of us simply let the rejection sting without ever trying to follow up for feedback on how we could’ve improved our idea.

Asking for feedback is never easy, but the reality is that if you don’t ask for it, you won’t always get it. Sometimes your ideas may just need tweaking or sometimes the reality simply is that they won’t work right now. But without asking for feedback, there’s always the risk of making the same mistake again. Even if an idea isn’t destined for greatness, never let it die in vain!

Rejection is an unfortunate part of life, and in business, sometimes it can hurt far more than we expect it to. But there’s wisdom to be gained in hearing “No,” and if we learn from our letdowns, hopefully we can find a few more “Yes’s”.