At some point in your career, you’ve likely experienced conflict with a work colleague. Maybe someone in the company got promoted before you — even though you’ve had a much longer tenure. Or perhaps someone else got credit for an idea that was actually yours in the first place. You might have even been on the wrong side of the “blame game” when a project didn’t go as planned.
It’s natural — and healthy — to feel angry when you feel slighted. However, when we hold onto that anger and let it fester, it can become toxic to our own mental and physical health. In a study of 148 young adults, greater lifetime stress and lower levels of forgiveness each uniquely predicted a decline in mental and physical health (Toussaint, Shields, Dorn, and Slavich).
Conversely, when we practice forgiveness it can help boost our well-being. A more forgiving coping style helps to reduce anxiety, depression and the likelihood of major psychiatric disorders. It can also benefit our immune system and lead to lower mortality rates.
For that reason, forgiveness isn’t just something we do for the sake of others. It’s something that directly benefits us, too.
Here’s what forgiveness at work is — and isn’t — and how to put it into practice.
Misconceptions about forgiveness
The concept of forgiveness is one that has caused a lot of confusion and debate over the years. First, forgiveness doesn’t mean overlooking the offense against you and letting the other person “off the hook,” according to UC Berkeley’s “Greater Good Magazine.” It does not mean you forget what happened or excuse the behavior. In fact, you can forgive someone at work for something they did, but still give them radically candid feedback about their actions, which can help to strengthen relationships (when delivered with kindness and respect). That direct communication is important for individual and team improvement, especially after conflict.
It’s not just, ‘I forgive you;’ it’s communicating.”— Janssen Judge, Aduro Human Performance coach
Forgiveness, however, does not require reconciliation with the other party. And it does not mean forgoing legal action if the behavior was against the law.
What exactly does forgiveness look like then?
Unlike justice, forgiveness is something that happens on the inside. Most experts seem to agree that forgiveness means to let go of deeply held negative feelings. However, psychologist Bob Enright, a pioneer in the study of forgiveness, told APA that true forgiveness takes it a step further. He said forgiveness entails offering empathy, compassion and understanding toward the person who hurt you.
This is not a sign of weakness, but rather one of strength. It empowers the forgiver, allowing them to release deeply held negative feelings that have been hindering their own well-being. Forgiveness also reminds people of the one thing that will always be in their control: how they choose to respond.
The benefits of forgiveness
One study examined how conflict among coworkers is associated with stress, health problems and poor productivity — and how forgiveness can play a role in lessening these impacts.
Roughly 200 employees, who worked office jobs in Washington, DC, or manufacturing jobs in the Midwest, answered questions about their capacity to forgive, their productivity at work, and their personal well-being.
In the first survey, participants were asked to focus on one specific event and how it affected them. The second study looked at their overall ability to forgive, their general mindset and their work habits throughout the past month.
Researchers found that higher levels of forgiveness led to increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, and fewer mental and physical health concerns, including sadness or headaches. These benefits were due, in part, to the fact that people seemed to experience less interpersonal stress when they had a greater capacity for forgiveness.
Another study found that people who were highly forgiving of themselves and others were able to nearly diminish the connection between stress and mental illness. Forgiveness, it turns out, can actually act as a buffer, preventing exposure to stress over our lifetime from snowballing into something more.
The benefits of forgiveness at work — and in life — don’t stop there.
The Mayo Clinic says that forgiveness can also lead to:
- Healthier relationships
- Improved mental health
- Reduced symptoms of depression
- Lower blood pressure
- A stronger immune system
- Improved heart health
- Increased self-esteem
That last benefit may surprise you, but it makes sense when you think about it. When we hold onto resentment, the person we end up hurting the most is ourselves.
Forgiveness isn’t just for others
Forgiveness at work isn’t exclusively something we extend to others. It’s also something we can extend to ourselves.
Maybe you spearheaded a new process that you thought would help create efficiencies, but it actually ended up creating more work. Or you took on a high-visibility project and had a colleague call out an error you made publicly.
Mistakes are all part of the human experience. Just as forgiving people can lead to healthier relationships with others, self-forgiveness can lead to a healthier relationship with ourselves.
Put it into practice
To let go of persistent anger or resentment you’ve been holding onto toward yourself or others, you might:
- Write down what you’re feeling and why you feel that way
- Reflect on what happened and the person who needs forgiving (even if it’s you)
- Acknowledge how your feelings about the situation are influencing your behavior or impacting your quality of life (causing you to feel anxious or lose sleep, etc.)
- Visualize the ways that offering yourself or the other person forgiveness might add value to your own life (reducing your stress and anxiety, etc.)
- If you feel ready, make the conscious choice to begin forgiving yourself or the other person
- Remember: Forgiveness doesn’t require you to say something aloud to the other party. It is something that happens within yourself — a personal choice and journey.
Forgiveness at work — and beyond it — is a process that takes time. There’s no set timeline. You might offer employees additional resources to help them work through grievances in their professional or personal life, such as access to coaching, counseling or therapy. Sometimes, a little guidance can help people work through their feelings and find the peace they’ve been seeking.