This article was originally published in HR Daily Advisor."
Summary: Executive coaching often includes corporate communication training, but many of these programs are missing a key element: forgiveness. But forgiveness is crucial for developing a strong and emotionally healthy work environment. Here are three tips for facilitating an environment of forgiveness in your organization.
How to Incorporate Forgiveness in Business
In the HR field, communications training remains a hot topic. Bestsellers such as “Difficult Conversations” and “Crucial Conversations” enjoy Kindle bookmarks and repeated readings. But a closer look reveals that communication training is simply a bandage covering a deeper issue that could be solved by one thing: forgiveness.
We seem quite comfortable acknowledging that our business interactions might lead us to butt heads, but if we give people a step-by-step process for forgiveness, there will likely be less conflict that requires a "crucial conversation" to smooth over.
Let me be clear: When I say "forgiveness," I’m not talking about becoming a perennial victim. As psychologist Bob Enright has noted, forgiveness happens internally. It’s not necessary to remain friends or allies with someone who has wronged you; justice and reconciliation are separate experiences from forgiveness.
Instead, I’m talking about becoming more fulfilled, healthy, and effective. When emotional intelligence and attitudes of forgiveness become a way of life among the leaders of a company, its employees experience a noticeable uptick in job satisfaction, per a South African study. And that’s smart business.
Reducing the forgiveness taboo
It’s funny: We don’t hear a lot about forgiveness. Business schools don’t teach it in a course. Onboarding manuals skip it. Perhaps it’s the potential religious overtones that makes forgiveness a taboo subject in the working world. However, executives needn't shun it, because forgiveness has secular components.
For example, in Colin Tipping’s book “Radical Forgiveness,” he sets up a framework for practicing forgiveness regardless of faith. He breaks down forgiveness as a fundamental skill that’s important in everyday life, whether between business colleagues or family members. His step-by-step process for forgiving — even in the absence of apologies — has the power to train leaders on how to stop blaming others. In fact, he reveals that what most angers us might be traits we mirror.
Case in point: I could say that I was angry because someone is being arrogant. But if I’m honestly self-aware and willing to take a step back, I might discover that I’ve reciprocated that arrogance. Basically, what’s irritating me is my own behavior just as much as the other person’s behavior. This helps me come to a place of understanding from which forgiveness can grow. From that point, I can move on rather than unproductively stewing in my own (toxic) anger.
It’s not difficult to see how such a sudden thought shift can have far-reaching implications. As one Luther College-based study discovered, those who lead a more forgiving lifestyle are less likely to exhibit high stress and worse mental health. Along the same lines, a Johns Hopkins Hospital director interviewed for a piece on healthy aging linked forgiveness to improved overall health.
Of course, my words of praise for forgiveness aren't just science-based. They're coming from my history of working for a demanding, difficult CEO for nearly 15 years. My anger toward this man spilled over into my relationships with my direct reports and even my family members. Ultimately, it persisted even after the CEO retired and I took over the CEO role myself. Our contentious connection had affected me so deeply that I had trouble staying calm even after he was no longer leading me.
However, after years of working together, I was with him as he experienced a moment of vulnerability. Witnessing that moment was a shock; all that anger and resentment I held toward him began to soften. The bulk of my pent-up frustrations melted away. I forgave, and the clouds lifted on our relationship.
Facilitating an environment of forgiveness
You can’t expect your team to establish a culture of forgiveness overnight. Still, you can take those first steps toward making forgiveness acceptable and desirable within the walls of your business. Use these tips to get started:
- Reflect on your own forgiveness level.
Think of two or three people toward whom you harbor anger. Why are you irritated? What makes you mad when you think about those folks? Dig deep to acknowledge and recognize your unproductive feelings. Name them without shame. Though it might not be a pleasant experience, it’s essential to understand how holding onto grudges detracts people from achievements and success.
- Pick up a copy of “Radical Forgiveness.”
Either grab a paper copy of Colin Tipping's book or download it onto your mobile device. Not only will you understand the concept of secular forgiveness on a larger scale, but you’ll see how forgiveness can be utilized to cultivate a healthier organization. At that point, you’ll be prepared to bring forgiveness to the rest of your team members, especially those in leadership positions or who are about to come into the fold.
- Complete a forgiveness inventory.
Let me be extremely clear: I don’t get any commissions on “Radical Forgiveness,” so my advice is completely untethered to profits. With that having been said, I believe that the worksheet and other tools available online offers a fantastic way to explore forgiveness. You’ll want to adapt the worksheet for your corporate purpose and make tweaks after the initial beta test. In time, a forgiveness inventory might become part of your HR training for higher-ups.
Is it realistic to assume that everyone on your payroll will instantly jump into a state of utter forgiveness after taking these steps? To be sure, that’s one of those “forgiveness fantasies.” Like any other switch in attitude, forgiveness takes time to develop and implement. That’s OK. As forgiveness becomes a key element in your executive training, it will seep into the cracks of your corporate environment. Eventually, all those positive leanings will foster stronger, emotionally healthier decisions across your company.
Krister Ungerboeck is a leadership keynote speaker and CEO coach who helps leaders unearth unseen potential in their organizations, their teams, and themselves. Before becoming the world's first leadership archaeologist, Krister was the award-winning CEO of a global tech company. He has done business in more than 40 countries, built businesses in five, and has lived in three.