How to Support Forgiveness in Your Organization

Much of my work in recent years has focused on the topic of forgiveness.

In a fast-paced, result-driven corporate culture, it’s easy to relegate forgiveness to the category of impractical, “woo-woo” subjects.

However, when you dig beneath your KPIs, you’ll see that the emotional and psychological climate in your organization is a substantial driver of productivity, innovation, and sustained success.

What a Lack of Forgiveness Looks Like (and Alternative Responses)

I think one reason HR professionals often leave out “forgiveness” from corporate trainings is that they don’t recognize the types of corporate behavior that are actually based on a psychological response (resenting, and choosing not to forgive) rather than a rational response.

Here are some examples of what a lack of forgiveness may look like in your organization.

  • Demotion or reassignment: Denying opportunities due to previous mistakes fosters a culture of fear. A better alternative is to coach people and provide opportunities for growth.
  • Exclusion from projects: Exclusion leads employees to feel isolated and undervalued. If you have an employee who hasn’t performed at the level you’d like, put them in the room with team members who they can learn from.
  • Negative Performance Review: Spotlighting error after error doesn’t help morales. For every negative, make sure you spotlight a positive. Additionally, let an employee know on the spot when you see them doing something right or doing something wrong so that they can learn instantly before you ever get to a performance review.
  • Poor Communication: Don’t be like Steve Jobs. When you see work that doesn’t meet your expectations, don’t tell people to “figure it out” without giving directions and feedback, and inviting them to ask you questions. Set your employees up for success.
  • Passing Over for Promotions: Overlooking certain employees for advancement will sow seeds of despair. Instead, establish clear career paths and development plans, ensuring each team member understands their potential trajectory within the organization. Then implement continuous learning and development programs to elevate your team members’ skill sets.
  • Hostile Work Environment: Allowing negativity and hostility dismantles team unity. Adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards toxicity will ensure a safe, respectful work environment. And, a respectful environment is an efficient environment.
  • Ignoring Contributions: Failing to acknowledge and appreciate an employee’s contributions will dampen their spirit and weaken their allegiance to your company. Congratulate, celebrate, and reward your employees’ success as often as you can. This helps your team members feel valued and feel that they belong on your team.
  • Strict Surveillance: Micromanagement erodes trust and inhibits employee autonomy. Give your employees a chance to navigate their tasks with some freedom. This will help them feel a sense of ownership and responsibility.
  • Withholding Resources: Sometimes, we punish our best employees for doing a good job by cutting their resources. Restricting access to resources can hamper quality and efficiency. Instead, be transparent about how you’re allocating resources. Ensure fair access to all your team members. This will pave the way for consistent high performance.

In each case, you can see that there is a negative, unforgiving way to punish team members, and a positive, forgiving way to help your team.

The Outcomes of a Lack of Forgiveness

I want to debunk the misperception of forgiveness as a purely altruistic act.

Forgiveness is a strategic approach to human capital management, conflict resolution, and organizational development.

A lack of forgiveness has many negative outcomes:

  • Diminished morale
  • Reduced productivity
  • Increased absenteeism
  • High employee turnover
  • Lower collaboration
  • Stagnated employee growth
  • Stifled innovation

As you can see, teaching your leaders constructive ways to forgive and productively help underperforming employees is a strategic investment into the sustainable success of your organization.

What is Forgiveness, Really?

A cliché tells us to “forgive and forget”. Of course, nuances of forgiveness extend far beyond this adage.

Forgiveness doesn’t imply condoning hurtful actions or missteps. It doesn’t shield the employee from consequences nor does it mandate reconciliation.

The essence of forgiveness resides in relinquishing resentment and allowing yourself to navigate forward without being shackled by corrosive anger.

Forgiveness is a self-serving act. It liberates you from negativity.

This is important to remember in both your personal and professional life. Grudges can lead to poor outcomes and bad decisions in both domains, while forgiveness helps us move forward.

Few people illustrate the profound impact of forgiveness as Nelson Mandela. His journey from anti-apartheid revolutionary to president wasn’t fueled by retaliation but remarkably, a tenacious grip on forgiveness and reconciliation.

In Mandela’s words, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

That’s genuine forgiveness.

6 Corporate Benefits of Forgiveness

1. Forgiveness Builds a Collaborative Culture

When leaders demonstrate forgiveness, it is not a sign of lax standards. Instead, it signals emotional maturity, wisdom, and a keen understanding of the holistic human experience within a working environment.

Leaders who embrace forgiveness embark on a path of strength. Forgiveness cultivates workplace environments brimming with trust, innovation, and psychological safety.

When a leader forgives mistakes, they empower their teams to take risks, learn from failures, and build a culture where people are valued above perfection.

2. Forgiveness Improves Mental and Physical Health

Your emotional state drives how you feel physically.

When you forgive, you reduce stress. That’s why people who choose to let go of resentment also tend to experience:

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Less depression
  • Enhanced immune function
  • Better heart health
  • Lower chronic pain

It’s not surprising then that forgiveness leads to better physical wellbeing and higher productivity.

3. Forgiveness Enhances Employee Loyalty

Employees want to be seen, heard, and appreciated, even when they falter.

Employees want to know that you have their back if they make a mistake. This allows them to navigate challenges with confidence rather than be paralyzed with fear.

This emotional and psychological security fosters loyalty toward your organization, as employees view their workplace as a nurturing and supportive environment.

In this way, an approach marked by forgiveness will help you retain your most skilled workers.

4. Forgiveness Supports Innovation

If you want innovation, you need to support risks.

When employees are unafraid of punitive actions for honest mistakes, they are more willing to explore, experiment, and venture into the unknown.

This isn’t just about forgiving a mistake here or there. It’s about creating a culture that supports risks. You can only do that by consistently showing forgiveness whenever people try something that doesn’t work.

Building a forgiving culture will drive out-of-the-box thinking and innovation on a daily basis. It will also create a repository of organizational knowledge from your team’s trials, errors, and eventual successes. This body of knowledge will help your decision makers to not only set a more innovative direction for your company, but also navigate the challenges of innovation more effectively.

5. Forgiveness Attracts Customers, Clients and Partners

A company that is known for treating its employees with respect and understanding, especially in times of challenges and mistakes, curates a positive image in the eyes of customers, clients, and potential partners.

Such ethical and compassionate handling of human errors and misjudgments not only enhances the brand’s reputation but also attracts like-minded businesses and customers who align with its values.

This ethical image consequently turns into a competitive advantage in the market where consumers and partners are progressively valuing socially responsible and ethically sound businesses.

6. Forgiveness Stimulates Positive Workplace Dynamics

Forgiveness significantly influences workplace dynamics, paving the way for positive interpersonal relationships among team members.

Forgiveness reduces the accumulation of negativity, grudges, and tension in the team.

Instead of dwelling on mistakes, team members learn to move forward collectively, embracing an optimistic future-focus rather than a pessimistic past-focus.

This positivity enhances teamwork, collaboration, and collective problem-solving, as people synergize without being hindered by residual negativity from past conflicts or errors.

Forgiveness Belongs in Your Workplace

A forgiving culture mitigates the fear of retribution and allows your team to work freely, explore creatively, and engage authentically.

But, forgiveness is not always instinctual. For many of us, our instinct is to remember and punish wrongdoing and underperformance. For that reason, it’s important to remember tha you may need to teach yourself to be more forgiving, and teach other leaders in your organization how to be more forgiving.

Leaders like Mandela show that the ability to forgive is an essential part of a good leader.

Today, I’d like you to find at least one way to elevate empathy and forgiveness in your organization so that you can experience higher levels of trust, innovation, and growth.

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