We don’t often think about forgiveness in a business context. It’s usually not in our vocabulary at work. But it needs to be. Forgiveness at work creates a healthier work climate or environment and creates many other real benefits. It is not a touchy-feely, hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya gimmick. Forgiveness in the workplace is good business.
It is important to define forgiveness at work. Forgiveness is giving people the benefit of the doubt and a second (or third) chance after making a mistake. It is putting aside past hurts and affronts to build a respectful relationship with a co-worker. Forgiveness is allowing people to learn through experimentation, without fear of reprisal. It is viewing an employee’s performance from a holistic perspective that includes past work history, personal strengths and the needs of the organization. Lastly, forgiveness in the workplace is cutting management a lot of slack.
Forgiveness does not mean creating a laissez-faire environment in which no one is held accountable, nor does it mean that we ignore bad or illegal behavior. Forgiveness never implies that the natural consequences of an action should be thwarted. Forgiveness and accountability go together to make tough love a stance that recognizes the worth of each individual while holding him responsible for the consequences of his actions.
In coaching executives and mid-managers, I find that the lack of forgiveness is always a factor in interpersonal conflict at work. It is imperative that we find ways of incorporating the gentle art of forgiveness into our work environment. Everyone, including the business, will benefit.
How does forgiveness operate at work? Here are five ways that forgiveness is applied in the workplace and the benefits of each:
1. Forgiveness creates a learning environment.
When people are allowed to fail with forgiveness, they tend to learn from their mistakes. Despite what you may think, every person must fail to learn. Think of a baby learning to walk: she falls, gets up, walks a step or two, and falls again. This pattern is repeated countless times until she learns to walk with perfection. Not only does she walk, but she learns to skip, to jump and to run, too! Forgiveness is especially needed when an employee learns a new skill, is put into a new position, or is promoted to a new level. Even experienced workers, including executives, make mistakes from time to time. A good employee will know when he makes a mistake, and he will need a boost of confidence from their manager, not a tongue-lashing. If the employee is in the right place and has the proper managerial support to succeed, he will learn and grow from his experiences. The corporation or organization will benefit from their accumulated wisdom.
Forgiveness must be accompanied by accountability, however. Established patterns of poor performance usually indicate that the job is not a good fit for the employee’s strengths or capabilities. A possible guideline is: Forgive until a pattern of failure is established. Once that pattern is well established, it is time to apply the natural consequences of their poor behavior, up to and including termination.
2. Forgiveness creates higher performance levels.
When the work environment includes forgiveness, people become more creative and produce at a higher level. Organizational research has proven that when employees are given more autonomy in their work (which implies forgiveness for mistakes that may occur), they are happier and more productive.
At a corporation that I worked with, a high potential manager was experiencing some unusual but significant performance problems that were affecting his entire team. To his director, he revealed that his wife had asked for a divorce and the emotional stress was affecting his work. Rather than write him up with a performance improvement plan, his director involved Human Resources and found a coach for the manager. After working with the coach for six months, the manager was able to identify ways to reduce his stress, sort through his feelings about the divorce and turn around his performance. In this manner, the corporation practiced forgiveness and saved a high potential employee, who continues to increase his contribution to the department.
3. Forgiveness improves the work climate and increases revenues.
Daniel Goleman reports in his book, Primal Leadership, that positive emotions and upbeat moods improve the work environment, which in turn increases revenues. This is especially true in service companies, where the positive emotions of the workers affect the service provided to customers. How can you increase positive emotions in your team? Martin Seligman, in his book called Authentic Happiness, reports that forgiveness is one of the ways you can increase your happiness. In other words, forgiveness is a contributor to positive emotions, both on the individual and collective levels. Therefore, practicing forgiveness in the workplace can improve the working environment and positively affect the profitability of the company.
Interpersonal conflict is the source of much workplace stress that contributes to lost productivity, failed projects and a toxic environment. When people practice forgiveness toward each other, work goes more smoothly, projects complete on time, creativity is enhanced and problem solving is improved. It is easy to get stuck in a passive war with someone who has stolen your idea and called it his own, or someone who constantly disagrees with you or someone who undermines you. It is harder to find forgiveness in your heart toward these people, but to do so will increase your own peace and happiness on the job and make you and your team more productive.
4. Forgiveness increases employee loyalty.
Research shows that positive emotions in the workplace create more loyal employees. Even in difficult economic times, the loss of a highly productive employee is a concern for all organizations. Creating a forgiving climate in the office or workplace improves the positive emotions and contributes to the retention of good workers.
At another company that I worked with, a new employee had to have emergency surgery before the company-sponsored health plan fully covered her expenses. The company literally forgave her wait period and paid for her medical expenses as if she were fully covered under the medical insurance. In addition, the company loaned her the amount of her co-pay for this expensive surgery. What the company received in return was the loyalty of that worker, who has remained at the company for over twenty years, rising to the rank of Human Resources vice president. Now she is in a position to reach back and help other employees by extending the spirit of forgiveness that still pervades that corporate culture.
5. Forgiveness is cutting management a lot of slack.
We’ve talked a lot about managers forgiving their employees, but let’s turn that around. In most organizations, managers deserve a lot of forgiveness from their employees. Most managers want what is best for the employees, for the customers and for the company, and often it is difficult to please all three constituents. Sometimes, managers must make decisions that cannot be fully explained to their teams due to the confidential nature of the situation. Managers are human like the rest of us and have good and bad days. The same rule as above applies: Forgive until a pattern of failure is established. Suspend your judgments until you have taken a generous amount of time to gather enough data points to truly assess your manager. Then, choose your actions wisely. By forgiving your boss, you may save your job and your sanity in the workplace.
The shape of the 21st century workplace must include the practice of forgiveness for organizations to grow and thrive, because forgiveness, as we’ve seen, produces tangible and intangible benefits. The current economic crisis provides an opportunity to examine and improve or revolutionize - our old ways of doing business. Building a climate of forgiveness in the workplace is a revolutionary idea whose time has come but only for those businesses that wish to survive the current challenges and flourish in the years to come.