Meet Rejection Man.
Superman can fly. Batman has money. Spiderman can climb skyscrapers. These are their superpowers. But what, you ask, is the superpower for Rejection Man?
You’ll meet him – or her – in some workplaces. It’s the person who refuses to engage in any optional interaction. The one who walks out when the consultants come, and won’t co-operate at all. The one who says “I’m not going” when there’s training. Often, it’s said with great conviction, with implacable opposition even when there’s no compulsion, and with an angry smile.
Sometimes people at work get so beaten up by life and by real or perceived injustices that they give up on themselves. They cease to believe that they can have any effect on the world. As soon as that happens, they lose all affinity for the world. Affinity is the “glue” that makes us want to stick to things. No affinity, no glue – we peel away from the world and give up. Kids take to drugs. Adults at work take to an equally simple, one-size-fits-all solution which, at the time, can seem like a real epiphany.
It’s our one guaranteed superpower. It’s the one thing we can always do. When the world doesn’t go our way, when we feel treated badly, when no-one listens or cares, when we have no influence or power, we can always still reject the world. When a person is beaten down as badly as that, rejection is the only superpower that’s left. It’s the one power that can never be taken away, the one they control completely.
People who feel punished and powerless in the face of indifference and rejection from the world will punish the world back with equal or greater indifference and rejection. It’s the worst punishment they can think of. That explains the retribution with angry silence, the implacable refusals, the triumphant grin that has a huge tear behind it. These people are drowning. They are using the one strategy they trust. Take away that crutch, and they feel as if you are asking them to live without oxygen. It’s exactly the same fear an addict has of losing access to their drug.
Rejection Man is found most often in workplaces where rejection is possible, or permissible. In a workplace where non-cooperators get fired, Rejection Man can’t find a place to hide; you will find different pathologies (like not telling truth to power) in these workplaces. Rejection Man thrives in workplaces where they can’t get fired and can’t be separated. It’s a very stable unholy trinity, with Rejection Man as the victim, the workplace as the oppressor, and the single-minded strategy of rejection as the savior. It’s called a “victim triangle” and it can last for a whole career.
It is not reasonable to expect Rejection Man or Rejection Woman to “just co-operate”, to throw away the one crutch they still own. First, slowly, gently, they need something else to lean on; usually something they have learned to fear and hate through repeated negative conditioning, repeated electric shocks. The only bridge back is to find some human affinity, somewhere, by de-conditioning the aversive reactions they have to most inputs. With patience and time, sometimes good leadership at the workplace can help Rejection Man find affinity for something positive, for alternative strategies to constant rejection. Sometimes it’s impossible – it is more than a workplace boss can or should do, and it crosses the boundary into amateur psychotherapy, which you should never do. Sometimes you will have to put the team first, and walk away, and feel bad. That’s part of leadership, too.