THE BLOG

Even in Business, a Little Forgiveness Can Go a Long Way

03/15/2013 12:24 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013

It's difficult to avoid conflict at work. Sure, we can try to prevent conflict in the first place, but with so many different personalities, working styles, and stress-inducing responsibilities, the employee that never experiences conflict is more likely to be the exception than the rule. When conflict sneaks its way into our relationships at work, what can we do to make sure things don't get out of hand?

Our first instinct is often to avoid or even take revenge against the people that hurt us. But there are many challenges and limitations to acting on these instincts. It isn't always easy to avoid someone you work with, especially if that person is higher in the chain of command than you. We often think of revenge as cathartic, but research suggests this usually isn't the case. "Venting" is more likely to make us feel worse than better. Forgiveness, on the other hand, can make victims feel better and restore essential relationships in the process.

When management consultant Michael Stone interviewed executives across the United States to elicit their opinions about forgiveness at work, he found that it often brought up a sense of fear. Fear of losing control, fear of losing trust, fear of losing power. But how do these fears match up with what we really know about the science of forgiveness?

Decades of research emphasize the remarkably positive effects of forgiveness. When victims forgive their offenders, they experience less stress, elevated moods, and better relationships. People who tend to forgive their offenders even show better long-term health than their less-forgiving counterparts. Fears that forgiveness might create a permissive environment in organizations also seem to be largely unfounded. Researchers Brad Kelln and John Ellard at the University of Calgary suggest that forgiveness can in fact increase offenders' compliance with their victims' wishes. This is the metaphor of forgiveness as a gift that a victim offers to an offender, which tends to create a sense of indebtedness, encouraging offenders to be kinder and more thoughtful in the future.

When organizations actively encourage their employees to seek and offer forgiveness, real change begins to emerge. Several years ago, the University of Michigan Health Care System initiated a patient apology program, encouraging employees to apologize for medical errors. By opening the door to repentance and forgiveness, the program has since saved the University of Michigan $2 million per year in litigation costs.

Of course, forgiveness is not a panacea. Sometimes, offenders will continue to treat you poorly well after you have offered the olive branch. In these cases, it might be time to try a new approach. A third party mediator, such as a neutral manager, can be particularly helpful in bringing the conflict out in the open and finding a way to move forward. But even when forgiveness is difficult, its benefits are hard to refute. If you find that your first reaction to your next argument with a coworker is to get even, you just might be surprised at what can happen when you take a step back and forgive.

Ryan Fehr
Assistant Professor
Michael G. Foster School of Business
University of Washington, Seattle

Come join international experts on compassion and business presenting at one of the first large-scales conferences on compassion and business at Stanford University on April 30, 2013: The Compassion and Business Conference organized by Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. We hope to see you there!

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