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Don’t Be An Elitist Jerk When Saying No

Don’t Be An Elitist Jerk When Saying No

Like you perhaps, I have had my fair share of professional failures and rejections. While we can convince ourselves a “growth mindset” will help us learn and get better as a result of the various calamities we suffer, the reality is when we fail or get rejected it always tends to sting. It hurts. 

As a leader, I have also been in situations where I rejected someone else’s idea or had to serve up a failing grade, be it an academic paper, coaching moment, or the blasted annual performance review. For me at least, it can be an equally troubling situation. Delivering bad news is not something I wake up itching to do every day. It too can hurt.

However, there is a right and wrong way to deliver rejection or to inform someone of their failures. There are two pointers to mention.

Tip #1

Never be condescending.

By default, a leader assumes a position of power. They hold the cards, the meal ticket to potential success. The individual who has put forward the idea for consideration to the leader is—by default—at the whim of the leader’s decision. It is with bated breath—nervously wondering if the proposal will pass the test—that the individual awaits that leader’s decision.

The decision arrives. It is in the “no” column. Now comes the communication back to the individual.

Whether by email, telephone or face-to-face, the leader who has to deliver the news should be specific, diplomatic and (ideally) constructive. The latter has to do with ways in which to potentially improve the individual’s next idea. If the leader chooses to exert their hierarchical power and make fun of the idea or the person, it smacks of elitism. It is a ridiculous way to treat anyone. Leaders that deliver terrible news coupled with ridicule are choosing not to be leaders but bullies.

Tip #2

Never, ever, post your display of condescension on the internet.

It was one thing to be a bully by treating people condescendingly; it is another to publicly share your decision on social media feeds such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram.

While I am a proponent of working out loud—and if you need any guidance, do check out the work of John Stepper—there is no reason to air your dirty elitism and disdain for empathy via a publicly available status update. It not only smacks of a lack of judgment, but it is also an utterly classless act.

The individual who put forward their idea has now become a public victim of your bullying. Not only will they feel shame, but you will also come out less a leader than your title suggests.

It happens more often than it should.

Real-World Example

The latest example to cross my desk concerns a managing director of editorial services at a rather large book publishing company.

In this case, the managing director chose to violate both tips #1 and #2.

The first violation came in a rejection letter/email the managing director sent back to a prospective author. I suspect the author was merely shopping around a manuscript, but the leader now in possession of the idea exerted power and chose an incredibly condescending response. The leader writes:

“To write a book directing the course of all humanity is ambitious at best, but also a bit of a challenge because, well, in a world where everyone has their own view of how things should be, why should anyone listen to you?”

The managing director continued:

“To put it simply: who are you to write such a book? Stephen Hawking or someone like that could write such a book because he is very famous and well known, but what about you? I hope you see my challenge here.”

How did our elitist managing director break tip #2?

In their infinite wisdom, they decided to post everything to Facebook for the world to view.

In Summary

If you find yourself in a position of leadership where you have to reject someone’s new idea—be it a manuscript or otherwise—never, ever do so in a condescending manner.

Moreover, whatever you do, never, ever air your elitism on the internet for the world to view your complete lack of dignity and respect.

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