Rejection should not be easy: empathy in leadership

By Ben Newman

Telling people they didn’t make the cut during callbacks is never easy. Instead of doing it over the phone or email, our A Cappella group has always done it in person. After making the final decisions, I bring each person into a room and thank them for their time. Then, I break the bad news. As a highly selective group, we usually only accept 2 to 4 out of 40 auditionees in a semester.

I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. I auditioned for multiple A Cappella groups and got rejected from some. Putting yourself out there and singing is a really vulnerable thing. The act itself, performing for a room full of strangers, is nightmarish. So too is the looming possibility of not making it. 

That’s why our group celebrates each auditionee, no matter their skill level. Everyone deserves cheers, applause and friendly words of encouragement.

Rejecting people took a toll on me Friday night, as it should. It reminds me that these decisions should come with a realness and weight for me, not just the person who didn’t make the cut. These candidates made a significant investment in us by joining for the callback round.  Rejection by email for anyone who made this effort seems cold and unbalanced. (It should be noted we send individual emails to those who do not make it to the second round, given the large candidate pool and the fact that they leave the venue after their slot).

I was struck by one auditionee who asked to talk to me a few minutes after I broke the news. He asked me what he could improve upon for next time. 

Typically, we don’t share feedback, since we don’t get the chance. But put on the spot, I told him about the debate we had over the strengths and weaknesses of his performance. It was not an easy decision for our A Cappella group. I was impressed by his composure as he considered the news. To him, rejection was a learning opportunity. I’ve met few people who can turn rejection into learning that fast.