To err is human – to forgive is divine. And profitable!

Forgiveness in the workplace

A radio producer felt oppressed because her boss was constantly stealing her food - right off her desk. So she made some candy out of EX-Lax, the chocolate flavored laxative, and left it on her desk. As usual, he ate them without permission. When she told this thief what was in the candy, he was not happy.??? (Source).

What do you do, when you’re treated badly or unfairly at work? Do you go along to get along? Get even? Something else?

More and more people seek revenge at work when slighted. The number of retaliation charges has nearly doubled over the last eight years and more than 27% of all harassment and discrimination claims currently filed contain a claim for retaliation (source).

But while getting even may feel good for a moment, is it really a good idea? From a business perspective, the answer turns out to be no.

I was recently at an international conference on positive psychology arranged by the Center for Applied Positive Psychology, and among the many fascinating people I met there was Sarah Warner.

Sarah presented a research project that demonstrates that workplaces with a culture of forgiveness had:

  1. Lower levels of interpersonal conflict and stress
  2. Higher levels of productivity

Apparently, revenge creates stress and lowers productivity, whereas a culture of forgiveness makes a company more efficient and more profitable. So forgiveness is good for business. Cool!

I’ve had a chance to interview Sarah about her fascinating project, and about why companies need to work on their ability to forgive people’s missteps.

Sarah, please tell us a little about yourself
I am an undergraduate student at Luther College, a university in the United States and I graduate this month! I have conducted research through my university on the topics of workplace forgiveness, interpersonal stress, productivity, and health. I recently presented a poster of my research at the First Applied Positive Psychology Conference, University of Warwick, UK.

How did you come to choose workplace forgiveness as a topic for your study?
Looking at the “other side” of the issue was interesting to me. By the other side I mean looking at forgiveness as opposed to revenge, which is emphasized most by many researchers. I wanted my study to be applicable to the real world, which is why I used a real, live workplace for my research. There is a misconception that forgiveness has no place in the business world and I wanted to show that this is far from the truth.

What kind of workers participated in the study?
The workers who participated in my research were employees at a manufacturing firm. Most of the employees at this workplace were in a factory environment, with the others in an office setting.

How exactly does forgiveness affect interpersonal relationships?
Interpersonal stress was found to mediate (act as the “middleman”) in the relationship between forgiveness and health/productivity outcomes. This means that forgiveness is related to health (both physical and mental) and productivity through the variable of interpersonal stress. In fact, the results of my study suggest that up to 40% of the relationship is accounted for by interpersonal stress. Also, forgiveness alone was strongly correlated to health and productivity.

Did anything in your results surprise you?
The strength of the results was the most surprising aspect of the study. I had predicted that this relationship would exist but the extent to which
it exists was surprising. Forgiveness is related to many of the things that organizations are worried about today: Productivity problems, health insurance costs, etc. Organizations should think twice before they write-off forgiveness as having no importance in the workplace.

What’s next? What are some of the questions we still need answers to?
Because this study was one of the first to examine this relationship, more research would be helpful to confirm its strength. Looking at different
types of workplaces and organizations in other countries would also be a great next step. The interesting question, especially in the business
world, is how forgiveness can save an organization money (through increasing productivity, decreasing healthcare costs, etc.). When the discussion turns to saving money, organizations start to listen a bit more.

Have you ever sought revenge on someone? Or are you the forgiving type? :o)
Well, that is a fair question! I have to say that I am generally the forgiving type. Like most people, I have held grudges in the past against people who have hurt me. While it is hard at times, I try not to do to this anymore. It seems that when a person holds a grudge, it really ends up hurting them the most, not the person they are holding the grudge against. I believe this to be true, which is part of the reason I am so interested in this field of research.

A great big thank you to Sarah.

If you have any questions for her, write a comment, and she’s promised to answer.

14 thoughts on “To err is human – to forgive is divine. And profitable!”

  1. I believe that thinking of revenge will only affect our performance at work. It’s a hard situation indeed because you see each other every day at work and thinking about it will do you no good.

  2. Sarah & Alexander,
    thanks for the insight.
    You probably remember the game theory application in which programs competed with one another in the prison’s dilemma? It turns out that the tit for tat (do good until you’re wronged quickly retaliate and then revert to doing good) won against very complex algorithms. The next year, this algorithm was beaten by the tit for two tats (do good even when you’re wronged, and only retaliate once you’ve been wronged twice in a row).

  3. Oops. I forgot to post my question.
    Did you find that forgiveness had to be expressed one-on-one? Or was it enough for people to let go of their resentment and just move on?

  4. Thanks for the comment, Ron! The survey I used to measure forgiveness looked at general levels of forgiveness, or dispositional forgivness, across all situations. There was not a specific question to address this issue, although it is a very good question. In my opinion, it depends on the transgression that occured between the two people. If it is mainly just the person holding a grudge, sometimes it is not necessary to formally acknowledge the forgiving. However, in many cases, making a point to forgive someone can be very helpful if that involves facing the person who caused the hurt. This way both people can move past the situation and continue their relationship in a healthier way. This being said, if someone is looking to release themself from thoughts of revenge, forgiving someone can occur without expressing it explicitly. I am sorry I do not have a more specific answer! Thanks.

  5. I agree. It’s better to forgive and forget. This way, we will be able to go on with our work and our lives. Holdingl grudges will only burden us with the heavy feeling.

  6. Hi Sarah!

    This is very interesting. I’m curious to know how many “transgressions” occurred (daily, weekly, monthly) that happened in the workplace to require forgiveness from one party or another?

    Also, did the need to forgiveness arise more between a superior and a his report , cross-functionally, or within a group?

    I know lots of questions, but this is great stuff!

  7. Hi Holly!

    Thanks for the comment. Actually, the surveys I used did not measure the number of transgressions. This was more just about general levels of forgiveness as opposed to relating the questions back to specific incidents. As for your second question, when measuring forgiveness and stress levels, the questions pertained to the employee’s boss or co-worker, once again on a general level. I did not get specific with questions because I was afraid that they would not be answered honestly out of fear of their boss or co-worker would find out. This is one of the problems with surveying in a workplace. People can be very paranoid if they have any thought that someone might see their comments and answers. So I am sorry I cannot specifically answer your questions, although it would be very interesting to know all of this information. Thanks!

  8. It’s indeed hard to stay away from situations wherein you are the center of it. People who are more concerned with the worries in life will probably go on with the fight. But for those who love thier work will be willing to sacrifice for it.

  9. Howie: Exactly – it’s no fun to be around your co-workers all day with thoughts of revenge on your mind.

    Ron: I didn’t know about tit for two tats – but I like it. Thanks!

    Charlie: And that may be the biggest benefit: Forgiving allows us to move on.

    Helen: Yeah, tt’s funny how some people can hold a grudge alive for years…

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