In a series of experiments, the authors find that people are able to overcome their fear of rejection by considering both the pros and cons of what they want. While past research (and intuition) suggest that people approach a prospect if they think about the positives of achieving it, this research shows that considering the negatives as well provides a powerful boost by making the prospect of failing to get it less threatening.
Often in life we reach a crossroads where we risk rejection. We want to ask for a promotion, for example, or negotiate the terms of a new job, or even ask someone out on a date. But sometimes the risk of rejection feels too great, and some people elect to not even try. Instead they let the job opportunity pass by, the date go unmade, the raise unoffered. The impact of this can be staggering; lost opportunities pile up and compound. What if there were a way to make rejection less scary?
There is. Ambivalence.
Our new research shows that generating both pros and cons (i.e., generating ambivalence) can actually make people more likely to risk rejection. The reason is simple; generating pros and cons makes the prospect of failing to get it feel less threatening.
In our first study, we asked people to describe their dream job and then imagine that they had been offered it and to consider the benefits package. Half of the them were then asked to come up with three pros of getting more vacation days, while the other half was asked to come up with one pro and two cons (i.e., generate ambivalence) of getting more vacation days. People generated examples of pros such as “I get to relax more,” or that they would have “more time to spend with family,” and cons such as “work may pile up” or that they “might miss out on a project while I am gone.” We then asked them if they wanted to negotiate their job offer. The outcome? People who came up with one pro and two cons were more willing to negotiate their dream job offer than people who came up with only positives.
Similarly, in another study, we asked full-time employees to describe a promotion at their workplace. We then asked one group of the employees to come up with pros of the promotion, another group of the employees to come up with cons of the promotion, and a third group of the employees to come up with both pros and cons of the promotion. Employees who came up with a mix of pros and cons (i.e., generated ambivalence) were most willing to ask for the promotion, while employees who came up with only cons were no more willing to ask for the promotion than employees who came up with only pros.
Why is ambivalence so powerful? We suggest that it acts as a shield against the fear of rejection; it lowers the desirability of a prospect just enough to make negative outcomes less threatening while still maintaining the attractiveness of the outcome itself. This is true not just in professional contexts, but personal ones, too. In another study, we asked currently single people to tell us about their celebrity crush, and to imagine that they just met someone who looks a lot like that person. The group of people who were asked to come up with one pro and two cons of dating their celebrity crush lookalike were more willing to ask that person out on a date than the group of people who were asked to come up with three pros of dating their celebrity crush lookalike.
The lesson from our research is simple: When fearing rejection, consider the positives and negatives of getting what you want. By cultivating ambivalence, you will find yourself more willing to negotiate and speak up.