Does Forgiveness have a Place at Work? Going Beyond the Cliché

As adults, we may have marveled at how young children fight each other one minute and then become the best of friends the next as if nothing ever happened. In our relationships at home and at work, we wonder if we can take forgiveness in this simplest form like children do, and carry on with our tasks with the same unwavering enthusiasm as we have before the conflict.

But because adults are adults, and because adults are complicated beings, forgiveness is a farfetched idea to comprehend, and more so, to put into action. In the workplace where conflicts and mistakes abound, where toxic cultures like blaming or bullying may be the norm, and where relationships are not as deep as personal ones but loosely bound as interpersonal, forgiveness seems unnecessary and too trivial to be given a thought. Let’s face it, it is easier and more natural to cry, sulk, seek empathy, turn to self-pity or be vengeful than to pardon. Forgiveness is just one of the complexities of human relationships.

What does it mean to forgive? Google churns out several definitions, but forgiveness is primarily giving up being angry and vengeful at the ‘offender' and stopping blaming, fault-finding and the feeling of being the 'victim'.

In the workplace, this is most difficult to do. The reason is that there are no set rules or policies on it (policies on forgiveness? yes, it feels absurd just reading that.) and there is no way to measure it to make a sound evaluation of it. Also, there is this term called ‘accountability' or the obligation to accept responsibility for actions and results; In other words, having someone to pay for his or her mistakes. Our work culture sets this ground on the basis that accountability enables trust, enforces quality, prevents errors and builds confidence. On the other end of the pole, accountability means having ways to exact punishment and to put on blame. This work culture is profound and deep-rooted in the legal system, and most importantly, it has a very justified positive side that we cannot do without. Another reason why forgiving is difficult is that it is sending the message that the negative behavior is condoned and that we are allowing similar incidences to happen in the future. Moreover, forgiveness comes with a spiritual or religious connotation making it ‘inappropriate’ in the work setting. While many believe that it is a giant leap to sainthood, in the workplace, it is a common view that it would not take you anywhere. Worse yet, the gesture can be interpreted as a sign of foolishness and weakness.

The reality that we need forgiveness in our personal lives is undeniable. However, do we need it at work?

Let us dig into the value of forgiveness in the workplace deeper. To be unforgiving means having a hard time appreciating the positive things in ourselves, in others and the environment, having clouded or uncaring judgment, and losing focus. In short, lack of forgiveness leads to unwillingness or failure to contribute to a positive outcome. It feeds division, resentments, and mistrust. It halts improvement and invites further conflicts.

Therefore, we need forgiveness in the workplace. If it is so, how do we work on a culture of forgiveness?

Firstly, we have to begin by being aware of our own sense of forgiveness. Being the offended party, how hard is it for you to unload baggage and just overlook and let go? Has it been too deep and too long that clinging to resentment has become part of being realistic? Being the one at fault, how do you forgive yourself? Perhaps being hard on ourselves is the greatest barrier to forgiveness. We have to examine ourselves in both places. Self-critique is the first step to fostering a culture of forgiveness.

The second step is to separate accountability from forgiveness, akin it to “Let Caesar’s be unto Caesar." Let the process of accountability run on its own, but throw the wasted feeling away. The story of a supervisor and novice nurse below exemplifies this.

The novice nurse unknowingly interviews a sexual abuse victim and helps her take a bath before being examined by the medical examiner who is tasked to gather criminal evidence. The supervisor was blasted for it and was also held liable. Both had to face the consequences of what happened because of accountability. The supervisor did not hold a grudge against the novice nurse, and the sexual abuse victim and the family have expressed their understanding of the situation. After having been reprimanded, the novice nurse turned out to be the top advocate for abused patients years later.

Another strategy is a change of mindset. We should view the saying of “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” as a sign of strength and part of conflict resolution rather than as a sign of weakness and leniency. In other words, do not trivialize forgiveness.

Lastly, focus on restorative justice rather than on retributive justice. Notice that both terms have the word ‘justice' in them, ensuring rectification and due accountability ensured. The difference is that the former focuses on serving due justice and then bringing together the offender, the victim and significant people affected by the conflict for the purpose of healing and moving on, while the latter is limited only to serving justice when rendering punishment.

Fostering a culture of forgiveness in the workplace will enable a more meaningful and fruitful expression of self. From this culture will spring creativity, conflict resolution, proper recognition and rewarding, sharing of knowledge, and employee engagement. It should be part of every organization’s basket of goals.



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