The Power of Forgiveness in the Workplace
The power of forgiveness can often be an overlooked quality in a working environment but is incredibly important when building a strong team in your workplace. Have you ever carried a grudge or harbored resentment toward a fellow colleague or even your boss? Or perhaps you’ve fallen victim of someone else’s grudge or resentment?
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” While it does require great strength to accept responsibility for your own mistakes and forgive others for making mistakes as well, it may take even more strength in order to rid your work environment of negativity.
A recent study from the American Journal of Health Promotion showed that “Forgiveness may be associated with outcomes by (at least partially) reducing stress related to workplace offenses. Forgiveness may be an effective means of coping following being emotionally hurt on the job that may promote good health, well-being, and productivity.” This is reflected in our own experience in many ways at David Couper Consulting.
On one occasion, we taught a class at a company where, during a conflict resolution exercise, a woman said that her boss had never said sorry for being rude and disrespectful to her in a meeting and making her look stupid. He was shocked. He hadn’t been aware that had been a problem. And since this had happened over three years ago, he was even more shocked. I helped to resolve the issue with them both by allowing them a space to share their individual experiences and they could get back to business and breathe!
Harboring resentment has been proven to lead to health issues, both mental and physical. In addition to affecting you personally, resentment in the workplace can create a toxic and unproductive environment, leading to low morale and lack of motivation. It can be detrimental to employee engagement, affecting your organization’s bottom line. The power of forgiveness, however, has a powerful effect of restoring relationships and boosting morale and productivity. Studies have shown that learning how to forgive yourself and others eases tension while building trust.
The Good News
If you’re not usually quick to forgive, there are skills you can learn to forgive yourself and others. Conflict is stressful and can often make forgiving others seem difficult. We can take things personally whether they were directed in that manner or not. This is particularly challenging within an organization where it is often expected that everyone will be treated equally. When you’re treated differently or notice that others are not treated with the same respect, it creates tension and unease. Forgiveness suggests that no one person or position is better than another, and within the fabric of our culture is the innate ability to forgive. It’s being able to take responsibility for mistakes and allow your colleagues that same respect. After all, you’re working with humans, who are notoriously imperfect.
When people work with colleagues who will help them overcome their mistakes, they are much more likely to stay. They will also learn new skills to avoid making the same mistake again. And that’s for good reason — having the space to err and make mistakes humanizes one’s environment and even creates the space to make something great. When workers are denied the space and freedom to make mistakes, they often operate out of fear, resulting in the same-old-same-old ideas and lack of innovation or inspiration.
But what if we have a difficult time forgiving ourselves? While it might not come quickly, believing forgiveness is possible and working in a way that demonstrates you are making amends and trying each day to do better, is a good beginning. After all, not forgiving or holding on to resentment creates separation. When we judge others, we must also look at ourselves and be honest about what we haven't been able to forgive in ourselves. This must occur first to become an effective forgiver. If we are carrying around that pain it can limit what we do. For example, we worked with a senior leader who was let go from his job. He placed a lot of pressure on himself from this because his family struggled. After working with him, he came to the ultimate conclusion that he had done his best, and most of the problems that led to his dismissal were actually due to the market. Sales were way down because of economics, not his performance. Once he acknowledged this and forgave himself, he could move on!
Cost of Not Forgiving
The cost of not forgiving within an organization is significant. Fear becomes a driving factor, and once we become fearful, we can easily lose sight of what's most important when working as a team. Sometimes forgiveness is withheld because we think it will be assumed to mean that we are accepting or condoning a behavior. This is self-serving and judgmental. Issues that could easily be resolved become personal and create unnecessary conflict in the workplace.
Unresolved stress from interpersonal conflict often dampens our cognitive and compassionate capacities, making it hard to find a way to forgive. Here are some ways to instate an attitude of forgiveness at work:
Lead By Example. Model forgiveness at work, particularly if you’re a leader. Leaders’ behavior often has the greatest impact on organizational culture because it’s contagious. Leaders who model forgiveness on a regular basis are cueing similar behavior in others.
Take Responsibility for Your Actions and Mistakes. If we don’t take responsibility for our mistakes, distrust grows and the fear of something happening again can be worse than the original incident.
Build Trust. Having your colleagues’ backs and allowing them to own up to their own mistakes builds trust. Earning their trust creates a two-way communication for you to both share your misunderstandings and conflicts openly and honestly.
Don’t Take it Personally. When a colleague is showing that he or she is harboring resentment or is upset over something, it’s likely that they are being even harder on themselves. Give them space to cool off and know that they are experiencing a valid reaction to taking responsibility.
Conduct Interventions. Sometimes best done by third parties, interventions can address conflict and foster forgiveness. Invest in mediation programs to build understanding and teach evidence-based tools for ongoing forgiveness in the workplace.
It’s not healthy to harbor resentment and seek revenge on colleagues or anyone for that matter. Can you imagine the transformation that would occur on all levels, including your health, if everyone in your workplace treated forgiveness as their everyday disposition? Your days at work and interactions would be that much more meaningful and productive.
Not offering understanding, compassion and forgiveness not only hurts others but hurts yourself as well. It’s a shield that’s built up, creating a barrier between yourself and potentially healthy relationships. When we allow ourselves to forgive ourselves and others, we make space for real, significant change and healing to occur. A weight is lifted and our day simply moves on with ease, as we’ve discovered a way to resolve issues right when they come up. At David Couper Consulting, we offer resources to learn how to bring forgiveness into your office. (link)
Showing that you are able to take responsibility and forgive yourself and others are key to a thriving workplace. Forgiveness, of course, does not mean we condone or ignore bad behavior. Every workplace should have policies and procedures for dealing quickly with serious transgressions. However, if you do feel ready and the situation warrants it, give forgiveness a try. It could help you, your colleagues, and your workplace.
Ilana Tel-Oren is a freelance writer, content and project producer with a bath and body side-hustle that advocates self-love and self-care (www.stardustcoven.com). She writes content including web pages, blogs, and social media posts for clients in health and wellness, consulting and small business. She is also a contributing writer for music sites Buzzbands.la and mxdwn.