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The Human Factor

Success often depends on it, so …

Great leaders know when to forgive

‘The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong’ Mahatma Gandhi

Many experts have argued that failure is endemic to innovation. Experts have also indicated that huge percentages of new products, companies and ideas have also failed. One could perhaps deduce from all this that a lot of people who have no business trying to innovate are giving it a go anyway.

The reality is that the typical successful innovator experiences the agony of defeat far more often than the thrill of victory. The most successful creators tend to be those with the most failures. 

Importantly, no-one should choose the option of failure deliberately. But trying especially hard to avoid it usually means taking no chances on change.

Rather than fear taking chances on change, perhaps we should spend time acknowledging that failure is a by-product of risk-taking, and mistakes made in good intention will be forgiven.

Good sense

This may sound like obvious good sense. However, it is rare in large organisations that are rife with an interplay of ‘personal ambitions’, ‘workplace politics’ and ‘scapegoating’. If people perceive that the best way to look good is to make others look bad, then mistakes are seized upon; the venturesome are humiliated; and a climate of fear replaces positive enthusiasm. The game changes. ‘Avoiding the finger of blame’ becomes safe play. A culture of understanding and learning from initiative and innovation is not encouraged.

The value of transforming an organisational culture from one that promotes fear to one that offers a psychological sense of safety is illustrated by a study conducted by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson. As the research shows, people in organisations feel psychologically safe when those in power persistently praise, reward and promote people who have the courage to talk about their doubts, successes and failures and who work doggedly to do things better the next time.

Leaders must be firm and foster accountability, but they also must know when to forgive past wrongs in the service of building a brighter future. One of the most courageous acts of leadership is to forgo the temptation to take revenge on those on the other side of an issue or those who opposed the leader’s rise to power. Instead of settling scores, great leaders make gestures of reconciliation that heal wounds and get on with business. 

Ups and downs

In business, as in life, there are constant ups and downs. That is not in question. What is in question is how we respond to these triumphs and upsets. In the moment that we act, are we choosing what values we will live from or are we blindly striking back – reacting rather than responding? Bringing forgiveness into business acknowledges that we are not perfect. No-one is. Indeed, the search for perfection may even be counter-productive, because it rules out risk-taking and collaboration, two of the most fundamental elements of business success.

Forgiveness in business allows us to step out from behind the masks that so many of us feel obliged to wear at work and encourages us to step into our ‘best selves’; to be open, honest and authentic. Although this can be daunting, the outcome is worth it. Forgiveness allows us to recognise mistakes and misjudgments in a non-threatening way. More importantly, however, forgiveness allows us to create a new environment for learning and growth. It frees up the time and energy that would be wasted by resentment and allows us to move forward positively, with fresh eyes and increased honesty.

The question, therefore, is how can a leader foster a culture of forgiveness rather than one of revenge? Experts have put forward three important tips.

Leaders must learn to forgive mistakes

In one company, the CEO was told by a trembling employee that the company website was down. This was a big deal. This company made most of its sales online and downtime cost them thousands of dollars an hour. The CEO asked what had happened and was told that John in IT had bungled a system backup and caused the problem.

“Well, then,” said the CEO, “let’s go see John!”

When the CEO walked into the IT department, everyone went quiet. They had a pretty good idea what was coming and were sure it wouldn’t be pretty. The CEO walked up to John’s desk and asked: “You John?”

“Yes,” he answered meekly.

“John,” said the CEO, “I want to thank you for finding this weakness in our system. Thanks to your actions we can now learn from this and fix the system, so something like this can’t happen in the future. Good work!”

He left behind a visibly baffled John and an astounded IT department. That particular mistake never happened again. The CEO might just as well have thrown the book at John and fired him for his mistake. This show of forgiveness, of acknowledging that mistakes happen and that we must learn from them, goes a long way towards creating a culture of forgiveness.

Leaders must learn to apologise

Leaders make mistakes. Everyone does. But leaders, who never apologise for their mistakes, create a sense of injustice and unfairness around them. Leaders who freely apologise when they screw up demonstrate that making mistakes is OK and therefore make it easier for people to forgive others’ mistakes.

Leaders must make people happy at work

Studies have shown that when people are happy at work, they are much less prone to bad or petty workplace behaviour, such as revenge. They are also more likely to think the best about others and less likely to assume that others are out to get them – and thus worthy of revenge. What do you think it takes to make people more inclined to forgiveness than revenge at work?

After experiencing organisational harm, damage, trauma, or injustice, one challenge facing leaders is to help the organisation heal, replenish, restore efficacy and positive energy, and enhance resiliency. Fostering forgiveness is one effective mechanism for achieving those outcomes. Drawing from the work of Kim Cameron, the nature of forgiveness is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Consequently, it is important to begin with an understanding of what forgiveness is and is not. Cameron put forward the following eight assumptions:

• Forgiveness is a universal human virtue. Almost every day individuals offer forgiveness to others for offences or affronts in their interpersonal relationships. Likewise, virtually every modern religious tradition advocates forgiveness. 

• Forgiveness usually occurs in collaboration with other virtues such as compassion, humility, gratitude, hope
and love.

• Complete forgiveness has both an intrapersonal dimension (a reframing of personal feelings and attitudes) and an interpersonal dimension (reconciliation in relationships), so both personal and interpersonal change is required.

• Forgiveness is not neutral. It does not require abandoning anger or resentment, nor does it require pardoning or dismissing the offence. It involves acknowledging and reframing negative feelings and attitudes.

• Forgiveness is not weak, cowardly or a retreat. It is a gift that requires strength and the ability to create transformational change. 

• Forgiveness fosters healing, restitution and restoration in both giver and receiver. Forgiving individuals experience positive outcomes such as greater life satisfaction, empowerment, self-esteem and faster and more complete recovery. It also reduces anxiety, depression, anger and physical illness. Forgiving leaders experience more trusting alliances, social capital, ‘humanness’ in the workplace, productivity, quality, customer care and a sense of calling among employees.

• Forgiveness is active, not passive. It involves not only the cancellation of negative emotions and attitudes but also the development of positive emotions and attitudes.

• Forgiveness is not all or nothing. People differ in the motives and maturity with which they can forgive. For example, six points of a continuum might be considered:

‘Leaders will forgive if he can punish the offender.’

‘He will forgive if justice is done.’

‘He will forgive if society expects it.’

‘He will forgive if an authority or prevailing code demands it.’

‘He will forgive if it re-establishes order.’

‘He will forgive because he loves the offender.’

According to Cameron, the prevalence of the first few contingencies in most individuals suggests that organisations must often provide justice and restitution for forgiveness to occur. Cameron also points out that, in fostering and enabling forgiveness, the challenge of leaders is to provide meaning, vision, legitimacy and support.

Leaders provide meaning and vision

• Leaders acknowledge the trauma, harm and injustice that their organisation’s members have experienced, but they define the occurrence of hurtful events as an opportunity to move forward. A new target for action is identified.

• Leaders associate the outcomes of the organisation (for example, its products and services) with a higher purpose that provides personal meaning for organisation members. This higher purpose helps replace a focus on self (for example, retribution) with a focus on a higher objective.

• High standards are not compromised. Forgiveness is not synonymous with tolerance of error. Forgiving mistakes does not mean excusing them or lowering expectations. Forgiveness should facilitate (rather than inhibit) excellence and improvement

Leaders provide legitimacy and support

• Leaders communicate that human development and human welfare are as important in management priorities as the financial bottom line. When individuals experience understanding and support, as well as positive developmental experiences, they catch sight of an avenue for moving past injury. These experiences and support also provide the foundation upon which positive financial performance is built.

• Since forgiveness is usually offered in partnership with other virtues, the common language used by leaders includes the use of virtuous terms such as forgiveness, compassion, humility, courage and love. Public expressions using virtuous language make it visible and legitimate for employees as well as external stakeholders to feel and behave virtuously.

• Virtuous actions are highlighted, celebrated and amplified through reinforcing structures, systems and networks. Stories and scripts that define the core values of the organisation contain examples of forgiveness and virtue. Organisational resources are made available to support expressions of moving past the trauma. 

According to experts, the willingness to forgive, even of behaviours that can feel threatening, is essential on the part of any leader who wants to set group norms that will lead to psychological safety and constant learning. But that shouldn’t extend to a resolution to ‘forgive and forget’. In most settings, forgiving and forgetting, while temporarily comforting, condemns people and systems to make the same mistake again, sometimes over and over. 

The better approach is to ‘Forgive and Remember’ – the title of a great book by Charles Bosk on medical errors – the philosophy that Bosk says is used by the best teams and organisations. According to Bosk, you forgive because it is impossible to run an organisation without making mistakes. Pointing fingers and holding grudges create a climate of fear. You remember and talk about the mistakes openly so people and the system can learn. And you also remember so that you’ll notice if some people keep making the same mistakes, even after being taught how to avoid them. 

Learn from setbacks

A vital difference between good and bad leaders is that the former consider it their responsibility to surface and learn from past setbacks, errors and failure. They apply their management skills and dedication to building trust and an atmosphere of psychological safety. Such leaders inspire growth and development and their organisation produces fewer preventable mistakes.

Employers rarely seek forgiveness from their employees. Parents don’t seek forgiveness from their children. Politicians never seek it from their constituents; nor do athletes from their teammates, coaches from their athletes or teachers from their students. 

The game of life has a reset button, but most times it is not used. “I am so sorry. I am ashamed. Will you forgive me?” These humble words, when offered sincerely, can heal many wounds. I have watched in awe as leaders reclaimed their authority with the quiet impact of this single principle.

By harnessing the strength offered by the principle of forgiveness, corporations have regained their stature and families have been made whole again.