High-powered people handle rejection better, UC Berkeley study concludes

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High-powered bosses and leaders handle rejection better than their subordinates and are better at finding alternative activities when rejected, concluded a new study out of UC Berkeley’s department of psychology.

The study was presented Friday at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology by UC Berkeley graduate student Maya Kuehn, who was the lead author of the study. Kuehn found that while subordinates handle rejection harshly, people in power are quick to recover from mild rejection and are better at searching out alternatives when rebuffed.

“I’ve always been interested with how individuals regulate their relationships, and I wanted to look at what kind of expectations powerful or powerless people have, and examine how they react when faced with rejection,” Kuehn said. “We wanted to tap into power differentials in the lab and see how people would react to rejections.”

To explore the relationship between power and rejection, Kuehn sorted undergraduates into power roles with each other and then exposed them to the types of rejection that could be expected in the workplace.

Subordinates who were rejected reported lower levels of self-esteem and an increase in negative feelings, as opposed to bosses who remained relatively unfazed, Kuehn said.

Romantic couples with one high-power partner and one low-power partner were also observed and, according to Kuehn, exhibited many of the same behaviors.

“High-powered partners in a relationship don’t perceive rejection as seriously as a low-powered partner would, though it’s not clear if power differentials in romantic relationships are good or not,” Kuehn said.

Though the conclusions of Kuehn’s study may be interesting, she recognizes that the study does not necessarily reflect the complex relationships of power at play in the workplace.

“I would expect the same things to emerge, but it would be a little messier, with the ongoing relationship between bosses and powerless people affecting their long-term relationships and dynamics,” Kuehn said. “The high-powered people in these studies were always rejected by subordinates, so this also doesn’t address bosses being rejected by higher bosses.”

ASUC President Connor Landgraf said he agreed that rejection is easier to handle as a leader or boss, but argued that high-powered individuals learn this trait gradually, rather than immediately developing it after being assigned such a role.

“I would say that I definitely have learned to take rejection better,” Landgraf said. “I don’t think that it is something that comes naturally, but it is true that through experience I have learned to deal with criticism better. Before this opportunity I took rejection and criticism more personally.”

UC Berkeley psychologists Serena Chen and Amie Gordon co-authored the study. The paper is in the process of being submitted for publication.

Contact D.J. Sellarole at [email protected]