Forgiveness at Work

Sometimes, the office can be an unforgiving place. Consider:
– Dan’s great idea is put forward by his boss who takes all the credit for it.
– Harry catches the brunt of his supervisor’s angry outburst.
– Mike finds out he’s the latest target of Sam, the office gossip.

Most people can identify a time when a workplace betrayal made going to work difficult and painful. Besides hiring a lawyer to deal with the offending party, what do workers do?

They forgive.

That’s the healthiest thing to do, according to researchers Carl Thoresen, Alex Harris, and Frederic Luskin at Stanford University in California. Besides reducing depression, resentment, anger, hostility and blame, the ability to forgive colleagues, associates and bosses can contribute to positive overall health and well-being.

Seeking revenge may feel good at the time (and in the extreme can result in workplace violence), but in the long term, carrying the anger, resentment and hostility necessary to carry out acts of vengeance, harms the health of the avenger. Over time, finger-pointing, chronic hostility and resentment contribute to heart attack, a compromised immune system, increased risk of physical disease and even death.

The damaging effects of workplace betrayals add up when left unaddressed. Knowing how to ask for forgiveness and how to be forgiving, reduces the likelihood of ill-health and workplace rage, while it increases interpersonal effectiveness on the job. Companies where forgiveness is valued are rewarded with higher morale, fewer grievances and more open communication.

Luckily for co-workers, the capacity for forgiveness co-evolved in the brain along with the desire for revenge, according to researchers, Andrew Newberg, Eugene d’Aquili, Stephanie Newberg and Verushka deMarici at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The evolution of forgiveness is beneficial since it can cut off escalating revenge behaviour, literally saving lives in some cases.

Like any emotionally difficult task, seeking forgiveness or forgiving a hurt is easier said than done.

In our practice, we start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness does not require reconciliation every time. Sometimes people may forgive one another but decide to move to another department or even quit their job. In some cases, the offending person doesn’t apologize or see the need for an apology. This doesn’t mean the betrayed worker can’t forgive the individual. After all, your health may depend on it.

There may be no such thing as “Forgive and Forget”. Most people, even after forgiving the office gossip or boss who stole the credit, will remember the slight. While forgiving someone, painful memories are often re-experienced, but are key to finally letting go.

Anger towards a hurtful colleague doesn’t have to completely disappear for forgiveness to occur. Remaining destructively angry – harbouring vengeful thoughts, ruminating on the betrayal or raging has to be replaced with constructive anger – considering how to rectify the situation, figuring out new ways to think about the damage and problem-solving.

Workers who can forgive don’t have to feel only positive emotions towards those who hurt them. Obtaining a balanced view of the offender and the offense includes understanding “why” it might have happened and viewing the hurtful person as having both positive and negative qualities.

Advice For Forgiveness Seekers

The good news is that even if you have hurt, betrayed or damaged a work relationship, you can get second chance. Research shows that people are most likely to forgive when the offense, “faux pas” or damage is acknowledged. If you offer a sincere apology, and ask explicitly for forgiveness, you stand a chance of turning an otherwise negative situation around. Don’t forget to express feelings you may have, including guilt and sadness, but be sure to do something positive to reduce the effects of your transgression.

Beware of insincere apologies, downplaying, covering-up or minimizing the problem you caused. Blaming the person from whom you are seeking forgiveness will also make things worse.

The most difficult part of seeking forgiveness is it can feel pretty humiliating – that’s what makes it so hard. You’ll probably view the situation as less hurtful than the forgiver does or even see yourself as the “real victim”. Accepting the feelings of guilt or embarrassment that occur when there has been a betrayal requires putting pride aside, but it’s worth it.

Another barrier to seeking forgiveness is the fear of being punished. Workers may be reluctant to deal with transgressions if they believe they can get away with it or they will get into trouble. It takes courage to own up to a misdeed and face the consequences.

Shame can deter requests for forgiveness especially since unlike guilt (feeling bad about a specific action), shame leads to feeling exposed and identifying oneself as a bad person. Rather than experience these unpleasant feelings, many prefer to hide the problem, deflect responsibility or try to appear innocent, competent and powerful. Becoming defensive can show guilt.

Advice For Forgivers
There are three stages to forgiving at work:

1. Your first task will be to fully absorb what has happened. You’ll want to find out what happened and why. In the case of Dan, whose boss took the credit, he wants to know how and more so, why the boss went about presenting his idea while cutting him out. He will seek answers from anyone who has information. Piecing together what happened is a first step since Dan’s assumptions about what the way things “should be” have been turned upside down. Dan always assumed that bosses gave subordinates credit for ideas that the company implemented. Now, his worldview has been damaged.

2. During this stage, you’ll be focusing on “why” the betrayal occurred to try to prevent it in the future. Sue, whose work went unpaid, carefully reviewed her contract with the company and decided to change the wording from then on. At the same time, while exploring why the problem occurred, Sue discovered that the company had been having serious financial problems. The financial issues were embarrassing to company staff and made them fear for their jobs. Sue’s increased understanding of the company’s financial woes helped reduce her desire to punish them.

Like Sue, you’ll find an increased understanding of the person who hurt you, or the situation they faced, will reduce negative emotions and the desire for revenge.

3. You’ll be ready to move beyond the event and get on with your life during stage 3. You’ll give up painful emotions and thoughts connected to the incident, without forgetting them altogether. You’ll find yourself surrendering the feeling of wanting to make the other party pay. You will develop a balanced and realistic view of the relationship and feel released from being controlled by negative feelings and thoughts.

Harry, who endured a temper tantrum from his supervisor, will remember to keep a watchful eye on that person’s nonverbal behaviours that might signal too much stress. And he’ll be preparing to gently confront the manager on his stress-related behaviour if it occurs again.

So throw away the Clint Eastwood “Go ahead, make my day” rule of work relationships and borrow the slogan, (with apologies to the Guinness brewery of “Guinness is Good For You” fame) and try: “Forgiveness is good for you” – that’ll make your day.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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