Work Environment

The Forgiveness Trap: Becoming Stuck in the Hope of Reconciliation

When we properly understand what it means to forgive someone, much of the criticism leveled against forgiveness vanishes. For example, if someone thinks that forgiveness is to find an excuse for an offender’s unfair behavior, we have to correct that misconception. We have to realize that when we forgive we never distort reality by falsely claiming that the injustice was not an injustice. As another example, if someone thinks that, upon forgiving, the forgiver has an obligation to reconcile, we need to understand that the moral virtue of forgiveness is distinct from reconciling (in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust).

Yet, what of this situation: Suppose that Alice forgives Allen, her boss, for several inappropriate advances at work. He is not remorseful, does not intend to change, and dismisses her concerns. Suppose further that in forgiving, Alice sees the inherent worth of Allen, concluding that he is a person worthy of respect, not because of what he did, but in spite of this. Seeing Allen’s inherent worth motivates Alice to stay in this particular job and wait in the hope that Allen will change. After all, if he has inherent worth, then he may be capable of altering his unwanted behavior.

She is clear that forgiving and reconciling are not the same thing. At the same time, she is now staying where she is, waiting in the hope of his changing, waiting in the hope of a healthy reconciliation.

Of course, none of us can look into the future with certainty. No one knows for sure that Allen will not change. Perhaps he will have insight into his inappropriate behavior, have remorse, repent, and ask for a genuine reconciliation with Alice.

How long should she wait? How do we know, given that we cannot predict Allen’s future behavior? A key, I think, is Allen’s current insights into his actions. Does he see them as highly inappropriate or as an “I cannot help myself” story? Does he see the behavior or continually rationalize it?

Does Allen show any remorse at all? Has he made even the slightest overture to repent? Does he have any insight whatsoever into his inappropriateness? If the answers are “no,” “no,” and “no,” then Alice’s waiting in the hope of reconciliation may not be wise if she has given this sufficient time.

When we forgive, we have to realize that sometimes our offenders choose to be willfully ignorant of their injustices and to the damage it is doing. When we forgive, we have to realize that some of our offenders choose not to change at all. Under these circumstances, we should not let our forgiveness set up a false hope. If we do, we are distorting the power of forgiveness and need to re-think our position. Forgiveness is not so powerful that it can always get the other to develop remorse, to repent, and to reconcile well.


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Forgiveness in the Workplace

Almost two million people per year in the United States report that they are victims of violence in the workplace. Most of these incidents are unreported, which means that the victims are coming to work each day with an inner world that may be disrupted and resentful while the worker goes about his or her routine tasks.

The United States Department of Labor suggests that to reduce violence, no-tolerance policies along with encouragement to report incidents and prevention programs may be best. Yet, of what should the prevention programs consist? recommends a series of steps such as a no-harassment policy, followed by reporting to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, followed by a lawsuit if such violence persists. Others have similar views: be vigilant in spotting potential behavioral trouble, report incidents, and offer help to those prone to violence.

Stopping behavior, however, is only one approach and not our favored one because the focus is on stopping symptoms rather than getting at the root cause of workplace aggression. So, what might be a root cause of workplace aggression? Of course, human psychology is too complex to definitively pinpoint one, exact cause for all. Yet, there are some themes worthy of reflection. The website Compassion Power suggests that low self-esteem, anxiety, and excessive anger are part of the explanation.

If you notice, all of these features (self-esteem, anxiety, and excessive anger) are part of a person’s inner world. In all likelihood, those who are internally disrupted are the ones who let all of this unrest out onto others, abusing them. Those who lack emotional integrity are usually the ones who hurt others.

Forgiveness is one proven scientific approach to healing internal disruption. Forgiveness can bolster self-esteem and be a protection against high anxiety. Forgiveness can reduce toxic anger.

For those looking for resources, we recommend Chapter 15 of the book, The Forgiving Life. For those of you looking for a more academic approach,  we recommend our on-line course based on the book, Helping Clients Forgive.

Forgiveness is one important way of quelling disruptive behavior in the workplace, by quieting the rage within. Co-workers’ productivity and cooperation are likely to improve when abuse is reduced.

Dr. Bob

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Forgiveness Is Good Business

I just came back from giving a three hour workshop for people who run family-owned businesses. The purpose of the workshop was to show:

1) that anger in the workplace is pervasive and can affect morale and productivity, which research shows;

2) that forgiveness is one solution to this problem because forgiveness has been shown to reduce anger which can directly affect morale and productivity;

3) that as people learn to forgive, then they may become better workers as well as better people;

4) that once people forgive the individual hurts that each encounters, then they might consider creating a forgiving community in the workplace.

The Forgiving Community in the workplace could be developed by putting ideas about forgiveness in any printed matter that describes fairness and honesty in the workplace, by leadership talking positively about forgiveness, and by supervisors mediating conflicts between employees with forgiveness themes as well as with the usual conflict resolution themes. Brining experts into the company from the outside by offering workshops on forgiveness could be considered as a way to give this message to all in the company: We care about the work climate and we care about your emotional health.

The feedback that I received from some of the 100 people in attendance was this: The discussion of forgiveness in the workplace is unique. Most had never heard a talk on it before and they thought it was relevant and important for their businesses. This seems like a new frontier worth pursuing in an organized, scholarly, and careful way.


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