Monday Mornings with Madison

Forgiveness in the Workplace

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Estimated Read Time: 5 ½ Min.

Most mid-sized and large companies offer employees training in a multitude of hard and soft skills.  Some of the topics commonly offered in corporate America training programs today include:  401(k)s; Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Attendance; Avoiding lawsuits: training managers on what not to say; Coaching vs. mentoring; Cross-training; Stress in the workplace; Diversity; Ethics; Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); Financial wellness; Internet use; Online security; Performance problems; Public/private partnerships; Sexual harassment in the workplace; Violence and Toxicity in the workplace; Wellness; Whistleblowing; and Workers’ Compensation.

Some of these topics may call for forgiveness to resolve a workplace problem, such as ethics, whistleblowing, training managers on what not to say, diversity, etc.  Yet there are seldom courses taught on when and how to ask for or grant forgiveness with someone at work.  Some people just don’t know how to apologize and ask forgiveness of a colleague or boss.  Others think admitting wrongdoing at work will be seen as a sign of weakness or a flaw that could ultimately cost them a raise, promotion or juicy project.   Still others don’t view their workplace transgressions as something that requires an apology because it was done as part of “getting the job done.”  Apologizing or asking for forgiveness is just not thought of as a “work-related skill.”

Forgiveness is a topic that comes up often in religious studies and places of worship.  It also arises often in counseling sessions.  And, at certain times of the year in some faiths such as Yom Kippur, there is a focus on atoning for one’s transgressions.  It is a topic that is usually discussed in relation to personal relationships, such as those with parents, spouses, siblings and children.  Those are the relationships that are valued most and require healing after a transgression.  We don’t, however, think of forgiveness as it relates to professional relationships.  But, pigeonholing forgiveness as only a personal tool keeps people from fully embracing its potential as a means of improving physically and emotionally at work. Forgiveness can help relieve the physical symptoms of stress that are all too common when in a state of un-forgiveness.

We spend a lot of time at work.  The average American spends 40-50 hours working every week.  And, most people work “with” others… even if that work lately is being done remotely, via emails, Slack, video conferencing and phone calls.  When people work “together”, they are bound to do things that irritate or upset another person, such as a coworker, boss or direct report.   It is inevitable that there will be conflict among colleagues, especially in high stress situations.  So what happens if those professional relationships remain damaged?

When left unresolved, those conflicts can cause significant problems at work, including:

1.  Significant stress on those involved directly in the conflict, as well as those on the periphery;

2.  Employee mental and physical health problems;

3.  Increased employee turnover;

4.  Decreased productivity; and

5.  Increased absenteeism.

Given the impact, what should workplaces do to resolve such conflicts?  In 2015, researchers set out to answer that very question by exploring the role of forgiveness in reducing those negative impacts.  Over 200 employees participated in the study which consisted of two surveys.  Participants were either working in office jobs in Washington, DC, or manufacturing jobs in the Midwest.  They responded to questionnaires about their levels of forgiveness, productivity, and well-being.

The first survey asked respondents to focus on a specific workplace offense, and how it had affected them. The second study looked at the participants’ general tendency to forgive, their general state of mind and their work habits over the previous month.  In both surveys, forgiveness was linked to increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, and less mental and physical health problems, such as sadness and headaches. The benefits were partly explained by reductions in interpersonal stress that went along with a forgiving disposition. Forgiveness was also found to improve workplace well-being and productivity of those involved in the conflict.

That said, a lack of forgiveness negatively impacted not only the individuals involved, but the organization as a whole. Holding on to negative feelings after a disagreement led to more conflicts that caused disengagement at work, a lack of collaboration, and aggressive behavior. Carrying a grudge was also correlated to increased stress, anger, hostility, and vengeful rumination by not only those involved in the conflicts but others as well.  Unresolved conflicts bled negativity beyond the people affected to others in the department or even the entire workplace.  Since those who were engaged in a workplace conflict usually have to continue working together, forgiveness was found to be an effective tool for repairing relationships and restoring trust—both key to effective workplaces.

Forgiveness also improves workplace performance by freeing the employee’s mind of the emotional constraints of holding a grudge, and that allows for greater concentration and focus on the task at hand. Forgiveness was also found to increase the quality of work relationships and bound teams together in honest discourse. As a leadership competency, forgiveness was found to influence corporate values and shape corporate culture.  It had far reaching positive effects across an organization.‍

Scientific study also validated that forgiveness is good for the individual’s health. For example, researchers at the University of Tennessee found a strong connection between forgiveness and blood pressure.  In the study, those who forgave more easily had a lower resting blood pressure and heart rate than people who struggled with forgiveness.  And, people who forgave more easily were more likely to work harder to resolve conflict and as a result, tended to have stronger relationships.  A study at Duke University Medical Center found that people who forgave others experienced lower levels of physical pain, anger, and depression.

Infusing Forgiveness at Work

So how does a company embrace a culture of forgiveness at work?

  1. Start at the top. Leaders are encouraged to model forgiveness at work.  A leader’s behavior often has the greatest impact on organizational culture, a kind of contagion effect. Leaders who model forgiveness on a regular basis are cueing similar behavior in others.  So leaders should be the change they want to see at work.
  2. Employees who feel they wronged someone should apologize and attempt to make restitution. Saying sorry is a start, but talk is cheap.  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.  Sometimes a sincere apology is all that is needed.  But sometimes more than that is required, depending on the situation.
  3. Build back trust. Those involved in the conflict should work at rebuilding trust by working on a common task, creating new experiences and memories of cooperation.
  4. Conduct an HR intervention. To address conflict and foster forgiveness, have HR conduct an intervention.  Create an environment where both parties can air differences and express emotions.  Companies can also invest in programs to build understanding and teach evidence-based tools for ongoing forgiveness in the workplace.

For companies that really want to infuse forgiveness into the workplace, there are programs that help individuals and teams to work on airing grievances, exchanging apologies and rebuilding a working relationship that is more sincere.  Of all the training a company can offer, this might be the one that reaps the greatest reward.

It’s been said that “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” That means that un-forgiveness hurts the person holding the grudge even more than the person who did wrong.   While forgiveness does not mean that bad behavior is condoned and every workplace should have policies and procedures for dealing quickly with serious transgressions, there should also be a process in place to use forgiveness as a tool.  Forgiveness is not just a really important personal exercise, it is an important tool at work to ensure that relationships remains strong and healthy.

Quote of the Week

“To err is human.  To forgive, divine.” Alexander Pope

© 2021, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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