Leaders and Forgiveness in the Workplace

By Rick Forbus, Ph.D.

Before I go any farther with this article I want to make it clear that I know this is an unusual topic for general business leaders. Forgiveness is never easy whether in organizational life, family life or just generally in relationships. It is, however, a relevant topic when it comes to leadership. To forgive someone is a powerful and complex action. It can mean to absolve or clear another of their wrongdoing towards you or others. It may include the next step of freeing that person or persons from the repercussions of their incorrect actions. When we make an emotional decision to exonerate another or to be exonerated by another for our actions, something deeply emotional transpires.

Leadership has never and will never take place in a vacuum. To be a leader one has to involve others. It is the “involving of others” that brings about the relational challenges. Most leaders, from my experience as a coach, consider walking into another’s office and asking for their forgiveness a glaring weakness. Leaders also often find it awkward to respond when someone forgives them for a wrongdoing. Even though it is difficult to talk about forgiving someone in the corporate setting, what may appear to be a weakness, could be a definable strength as a leader.

Forgive and forget. Easier said than done, right? Well, now studies are showing forgiveness is not only good religion but good medicine as well. According to the latest medical and psychological research, forgiving is good for our souls-and our bodies. People who forgive: (1) benefit from better immune functioning and lower blood pressure (2) have better mental health than people who do not forgive (3) feel better physically (4) have lower amounts of anger and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and (4) maintain more satisfying and long-lasting relationships. “When we allow ourselves to feel like victims or sit around dreaming up how to retaliate against people who have hurt us, these thought patterns take a toll on our minds and bodies,’ says Michael McCullough, director of research for the National Institute for Healthcare Research and a co-author of To Forgive is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past (IVP, 1997).

I have known for all of my work life that forgiveness played a part in relationship building and interpersonal skills. However, the practice of forgiveness in “real time” is another issue all together. Of course, many leaders think that it is rather inappropriate to hold two co-workers accountable for forgiveness in a setting outside of family, community-based organizations or religious practice. I agree that the act of forgiveness is difficult to manage and assess on a performance review. Recently, after reflecting on one of the business teams Trove had worked with, it occurred to me that the element of forgiveness was probably a key ingredient that was needed for the relational dysfunction apparent with this team. But, I thought, is Trove’s approach too invasive by suggesting forgiveness as an ingredient for their solution? It was not the entire solution but could be a significant factor to the solution.

As we normally do as a coaching team, one of us will begin researching solutions, so I researched how forgiveness was being used to solve some relational divergence in the workplace. The following is one of several articles I found in my research:

Forgiveness as a workplace intervention

Apropos of Monday’s outburst, this came across my feed this morning:

Improving individual, team and organizational performance is a primary focus of management and human resource development (HRD). However, only in the past decade has the literature begun to report specific research on the effects of many of the psychological and behavioral constructs that influence performance and productivity of individual employees.

The purpose of this review is to explore the literature related to interpersonal forgiveness in organizations and its possible implications for management and HRD theory and practice. It defines forgiveness and provides a theoretical framework for its consideration within the workplace environment. It also reviews and discusses the benefits and risks of forgiveness, the role of leadership in a forgiving culture, and the literature regarding related business interventions…

Based upon the reviewed literature, we propose the following integrated perspective of forgiveness: forgiveness is a psychological act, a communicative act, and a social act.

  1. At the individual (psychological) level it involves letting go of offense even if being offended is justified and the hurt is sustained.
  2. At the dyadic (communication) level, it involves letting the offending party know that the offense has been removed or erased.
  3. At the organizational/cultural (social) level, it means that the relationship and associations are in balance and functioning effectively.

“Forgiveness as a Workplace Intervention: The Literature and a Proposed Framework” by Madsen, Gygi, Hammond and Plowman in the Journal of Behavioral & Applied Management, Jan 2009

Another good writing on this is found in a blog site.

Create a culture of forgiveness in the workplace

May 2, 2007 @ 5:15 pm · Filed under Happy At Work

The theme on the blog this week is forgiveness. I kicked it off on Monday with a tip to forgive someone at work, and followed up on Tuesday with fascinating research from Sarah Warner, which shows that companies with a culture of forgiveness are more productive than companies where people are prone to revenge.

I’ve since found even more reasons to avoid revenge at work:

A tit-for-tat corporate culture can also lead to the loss of great workers, said Dr. Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and Executive Director of the Campaign forForgiveness Research.

Worthington has been studying more than 100 workers in Virginia and Washington, D.C., who were asked to recall incidents of workplace transgressions.

“(After) conflicts, they no longer liked coming to work,” Worthington said. “They became sicker and missed more work days. In some cases, they even changed jobs.”

But how exactly can a company foster a culture of forgiveness, rather than one of revenge? Here are my top three tips.

1: Teach leaders to forgive mistakes

In one company, the CEO was told by a trembling employee that the company website was down. This was a big deal – this company made most of its sales online, and downtime cost them thousands of dollars an hour.

The CEO asked what had happened, and was told that John in IT had bungled a system backup, and caused the problem. “Well, then,” says the CEO “Let’s go see John!”

When the CEO walked into the IT department everyone went quiet. They had a pretty good idea what was coming, and were sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

The CEO walks up to John’s desk and asks “You John?”

“Yes” he says meekly.

“John,” says the CEO, “I want to thank you for finding this weakness in our system. Thanks to your actions, we can now learn from this, and fix the system, so something like this can’t happen in the future. Good work!”

Then he left a visibly baffled John and an astounded IT department. That particular mistake never happened again.

The CEO might just as well have thrown the book at John and fired him for his mistake. This show of forgiveness, of acknowledging that mistakes happen and that we must learn from them, goes a long way to creating a culture of forgiveness.

2: Teach leaders to apologize

Leaders make mistakes. Everyone does. But leaders who never apologize for their mistakes create a sense of injustice and unfairness around them.

Leaders who freely apologize when they screw up demonstrate that making mistakes is OK, and therefore make it easier for people to forgive others’ mistakes.

3: Make people happy at work

And most of all, make people happy at work. Studies show, that when people are happy at work, they are much less prone to bad or petty workplace behavior, such as revenge. They are also more likely to think the best about others, and less likely to assume that others are out to get them – and thus worthy of revenge.

What do you think it takes to make people more inclined to forgiveness than revenge at work?

Found at positiveculture.com/2007

Most of us have some awareness of the healing nature of forgiveness in our personal lives, even if we do not always engage in it! But, in the framework of business, enterprise and corporate culture it is an act even rarer than the expression of authentic gratitude and appreciation. Recently a coaching client referred to the economic situation as the “new economy.” In this new economy, which is characterized by escalating speed of change, increasing alienation, insecurity and a growing search for meaning, it makes good business sense to practice the art of forgiveness. True sincere forgiveness provides a platform for the retention of valued employees, allows for greater originality and innovation, leads to increased profitability, and generates greater flexibility in adapting to changing market conditions.

A little boy visiting his grandparents was given his first slingshot. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit his target. As he came back to Grandma’s back yard, he spied her pet duck. On an impulse he took aim and let fly. The stone hit, and the duck fell. The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the duck in the woodpile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing. After lunch that day, Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today. Didn’t you, Johnny?” And she whispered to him, “Remember the duck” So Johnny did the dishes. Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing. Grandma said, “I’m sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper.” Sally smiled and said, “That’s all taken care of. Johnny wants to do it.” Again she whispered, “Remember the duck.” Johnny stayed while Sally went fishing. After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and his sister’s, he couldn’t stand it any longer. He confessed to Grandma that he’d killed the duck. “I know, Johnny,” she said, giving him a hug. “I was standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. I wondered how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”

Forgiveness is a freeing act. It is a difficult but rewarding endeavor. I was walking through a souvenir shop once and saw a button that said: To err is human; to forgive is out of the question. Forgiveness is the action probably most avoided when managers deal with dysfunction and divergence in the workplace. This assumption is not supported by data, but is founded in my experience as a coach. What I mean here is that if a team leader asks team members to go and repair peer relationships; forgiveness is usually not an avenue that would be encouraged. It is invasive, personal and emotional. Forgiveness makes most of us feel uncomfortable.

However, the high emotional risk required to go and forgive a colleague pays substantial dividends. One of my Trove colleagues and I were co-leading some training for a group of managers. I listened as he gave an incredible illustration of human relationship building. He told the managers we were training a story of a top-level manager coming to him in a former company. My colleague served this company as COO. The manager came to tell him that a certain peer was making her life miserable because of his irrational and dysfunctional behaviors. She went on and on about how she could not get along with this guy and needed some intervention by my Trove partner. His advice to her came quickly and swiftly. Have you told this “adversary” how you feel? She said that she hadn’t. My Trove colleague went on to require her to go to the co-worker in question. She became furious! She demanded that he, the COO, deal with this issue. The COO continued to require her to take care of it. So she reluctantly confronted this adversary. The adversary was impressed that she had brought her concerns directly to him. They talked openly and he agreed to make adjustments to his work that was hindering her work. The end of the story is, she forgave him and they became life-long partners and built a strong alliance in their work.

Forgiveness is risky, frightening and an uncomfortable action of the heart and voice. It also reaps incredible dividends most times. Of course, as in any human relational scenario, there are times forgiveness does not bring the desired result. But, the risk is certainly worth the occasional rejection. Do you have some unresolved issues you caused in the workplace? What would the culture be like if you were to take the necessary steps to clear things up by asking for forgiveness?

There’s a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.”

On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.


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