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The Secret of Successful Teamwork: Forgiveness

Successful teams don’t play the blame game, they practice forgiveness instead.

By Gustavo Razzetti

November 21, 2018

Three simple words define a successful team, according to Reid Hoffman.

LinkedIn’s cofounder believes that most work relationships are built on a lie. Managers pretend that employees have a job for life. Employees pretend that they will continue working at the current company for the rest of their careers.
What if we can build loyalty without lying?

We are allies.

These three words by Reid Hoffman are more than a motto  —  they remind us of the importance of building honest, trusting partnerships at work. Every team member is autonomous . They are allies that voluntarily come together to work towards a shared ambition.

Being allies means respecting each other regardless of past mistakes. True colleagues don't bear grudges against each other.

The Challenges of Forgiveness at Work

Denial is the state of knowing but not knowing, according to Joseph Grenny. The author of  Crucial Conversations believes that “The health of an organization is measured by the lag time between when you feel it and discuss it.”  Not addressing issues in a timely manner makes things worse.

Last week, I was working with the leadership team of a successful financial services company — tensions were growing as fast as its revenue. People didn’t trust each other and had a hard time looking one another in the eye.

It all started with a small issue that wasn’t addressed at the right time. Spiraling emotions magnified the actual event  — forgiveness felt more and more difficult as time went by.

Holding on to negative feelings encourages disengagement, a lack of collaboration, and aggressive behavior. Carrying a grudge increases stress, hostility, and the desire for revenge.

A new study supports the power of forgiveness to improve well-being and productivity in the workplace. A lack of forgiveness negatively affects the individuals involved and organizations as a whole.

However, organizations are skeptical, as Michael Stone explains here — executives see forgiveness as an abstract or religious concept that has no place in the workplace. The author cites interviews he held at NASA —managers were afraid that forgiving colleagues could promote a permissive culture.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean lowering the bar — creating a safe space goes hand-in-hand with creating excellence.

When people don’t forget, the whole team suffers. Toxic cultures feed resentment and blame —  a lack of forgiveness fuels animosity and individualism. You can’t expect your team to collaborate if they hold grudges toward one another.

Source: Michael Stone — Forgiveness in the workplace

Neuroscience shows that a lack of forgiveness affects all levels of an organization. When under attack, individuals embrace selfish behaviors  ranging from alienation, to fear, or to low self-esteem. Toxic behaviors quickly spread across the majority of the team members.

Forgiveness is also an effective coping tool — it helps repair relationships and restore trust.

Why Successful Teams Practice Forgiveness

Holding a grudge against a colleague or the organization gets teams stuck. Instead of facing conflict, they focus on blaming others. Unforgiveness harms people, not just the team — resentment activates all the chemicals of a stress response.

When people are upset, they stop using their minds — fMRI studies showed that anger and vengeance inhibit rational thinking.

The defend-and-attack mode fuels toxicity — surviving becomes more important than doing great work. People start playing politics and the blame game.

Conversely, tasks involved in the process of forgiveness activate the areas of our brain linked to problem-solving, morality, empathy, and cognitive control of emotions.

Research by the Stanford Forgiveness Project shows that forgiving elevates our mood and increases optimism. Forgiving teams are more open to learning and improvement — they don’t let past events define their present.

Building a Culture of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a muscle that we can all strengthen – both individually and collectively.

Dr. Shawne Duperon founded the Project Forgive Foundation to teach leaders about the importance of incorporating forgiveness into organizations and leadership. The expert believes that “Forgiveness is a bold leadership skill. When fostered in business and leadership environments, you cultivate greater loyalty, adventurous creativity, and increased productivity.”

Effective leaders fulfill two requirements to promote a culture of forgiveness, according to research by The University of Michigan:

  1. They provide empathy and purpose. They acknowledge the trauma, harm, and injustice that someone suffered but avoid finger-pointing. They turn an incident into an opportunity for understanding and growth.
  2. They provide justice and support. Leaders can be fair and forgiving at the same time. Showing support to the wronged party is essential. However, their language should help restore trust — compassion, humility, and courage promote healing.

Building a culture of forgiveness requires reframing our relationship with both the wrongdoer and our emotions. Practice this three-step approach:

  1. Uncover the anger: Explore different points of views of what led someone to act in a particular way. Through self-awareness and understanding, we learn how the wrongdoing has affected our lives — facing our anger helps us move on.
  2. Decide to forgive: View things as less personal — you forgive the person, not the act. Making an explicit commitment to forgive others requires courage, but it’s the first step toward moving on.
  3. Reframe the emotions: Reframe your view of the offender. Once again, you are not condoning or justifying — you want to release yourself from the emotional prison. We transcend our pain by turning an offense into a lesson that helps the entire team grow.

A culture of forgiveness is contagious. Everyone in the team can sense when no one trusts each other. Conversely, people will notice when they start forgiving each other.

Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Understand their real motives. Most of us never see ourselves behaving in an unacceptable way, but we notice others when they do so.

Good habits also catch up fast.

7 Ways to Practice Forgiveness in the Workplace

A proactive approach to forgiveness is always more effective. However, if your team or organization is suffering from toxic behaviors, you might need a more structured intervention.

1. Model forgiveness:

Whether you are a team leader or member, your behavior matters. Promoting forgiveness start with you — embrace being vulnerable. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Be forgiving of yourself and others. Let transparency and personal accountability inspire growth, not blame.

2. Create a safe space:

Create the right environment for your colleagues to feel safe — avoid attacking those who make mistakes. Provide opportunities for candid conversation;  let people own and overcome their mishaps.

If someone has caused you harm, give them the chance to apologize and improve their behavior. Empathetic listening and kindness have a high ROI.

3. Celebrate mistakes:

Mistakes are a necessary component of innovation. Unfortunately, many companies have a hard time accepting their employees are human — they expect everyone to be flawless.

To succeed in a fast-changing world, experimentation is essential. Don’t judge people because they make mistakes; coach them to learn from them. Leaders make mistakes all the time. Great leaders turn mistakes into lessons.

4. Acknowledge anger and resentment:

Forgiving is not easy. Recognize that it doesn't occur quickly. Allow time for grieving — let people move from uncovering anger to reframing their emotions.

That the offender feels sorry is not enough. Most people have difficulty forgiving ; they want justice. It takes time to overcome one’s feelings and acknowledge that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning.

5. Conduct interventions:

When things get out of hand, you might need outside help to address conflict and forgiveness. Expert coaching and a structured program can stop the bleeding and promote understanding.

Multiple studies show that interventions are very effective in training people to forgive.

6. Develop a cleansing ritual:

Team rituals are perfect to close a chapter — both literally and metaphorically. Hold a ‘funeral’ to memorialize victims or to bury resentment. Ask people to write down all the behaviors they want to get rid of and then burn them in the ‘cleansing fire.’

Rituals are a powerful way to unite a team through a shared behavior. They invite groups to start over from a clean slate. In my experience, they never go wrong.

7. Rebuild the coalition:

Turning foes into allies takes time. The path to recovery requires acknowledging what’s working — shift the focus from the negative to the positive.

Rebuild trust by encouraging people to work on a common task or by practicing giving. Find ways for offenders to serve others. Create a space for emotional reparation by building on the positive. The Appreciative Inquiry method is based on the premise that every team has things that work already — positive stories boost confidence.

Key Takeaways

  • Unforgiveness fuels toxic organizational cultures.
  • Forgiving leaders encourage innovation and risk-taking.
  • Forgiveness does not mean condoning or accepting lousy behavior.
  • A culture of forgiveness promotes self-awareness, vulnerability, and empathy — it promotes experimentation and agility.

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