When you run a business, sooner or later you have to deal with forgiveness. Maybe you are the offender and must ask for it, or maybe you aren’t and must find it in your heart to forgive an employee, a customer, or a vendor. And, of course, you may also find yourself dealing with circumstances in which the offense is unforgivable.
Whatever the case, learning how to handle forgiveness is critical to your success. “Forgiveness is about letting go. Unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward,” explains Ozzie Coto, co-founder of the Cult Branding Co., a consulting firm. “In a global economy, your peace of mind and soul are mattering more and more. In a global marketplace, you cannot afford to be psychically weighed down.”
He adds that “the competitive landscape has drastically shifted. In our highly connected world, the willingness to both apologize and to accept an apology is a time-proven competitive advantage.”
Forgiveness frees up energy to focus on more important matters, such as taking care of your customers, nurturing your people, and developing your business, says Dennis Reina, co-author of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization.
With such significance, it’s worth taking a closer look at what forgiveness means for you and your business.
Does “Forgive” Mean You Should Forget?
People have different understandings of the term forgiveness. “Most scholars agree that forgiving does not mean excusing, forgetting, or pretending that an offense never occurred,” says Julie Exline, associate professor and director of clinical training at Case Western Reserve University. “Forgiveness also does not imply that you trust the person who hurt you. Forgiveness can be very difficult, and it can be a long process.”
But the rewards of forgiving can be great. “Forgiving provides an opportunity to grow closer as a company family, a chance to teach, to be a compassionate boss. The bottom line isn’t always a dollar,” says Alan Au, client relations manager for men’s clothier Jimmy Au’s, which has 10 employees and more than $2 million in revenue. “Showing compassion can build trust and loyalty. Employees will be more willing to work for you and that leads to more proficiency and efficiency.”
Henry Cloud, clinical psychologist, leadership consultant, and author of the book Boundaries for Leader: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge, says he has seen many situations where forgiveness saved the business. “In my consulting, I have found often that the real reasons for division with a team, partners, a board, or between companies, has to do with a lack of forgiveness and reconciliation. It affects culture and performance.”
If a company has a culture that adeptly addresses forgiveness, Cloud says, “we see better performance, greater speed, lower costs (think attorneys and retention), and most of all, greater learning. Show people how to deal with conflict, name it, do it kindly, acknowledge wrong, change behavior, learn from it together, and move on.”
Simply put, he says, “People cannot perform well in a toxic emotional culture because the higher regions of their brains are not working. Forgiveness is key to this. I have seen it from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies. It is powerful.”
As management consultant Marnie Swedberg notes: “It has been said that withholding forgiveness and holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Unforgiveness inflicts pain on the wrong person.”
Deal With the Truth and Move On
Given all of the emotions involved, what’s the best way to handle forgiveness?
When the violation or mistake is costly — in terms of losing resources (including money), endangering other employees or customers, or hurting company morale or public relations — you may be able to forgive the offender, but you can’t just let the matter just drop, either.
“In the case of abuse and illegal offenses, ongoing employment isn’t warranted,” says Mark J. Faust Sr., CEO of consulting firm Echelon Management International.
Cloud says it’s best to acknowledge the reality of what happened, without sugarcoating it or embellishing it in your mind. Make sure that you are humble and admit your own short-comings as well. “Forgiveness is hard for people who are not aware of their own mistakes,” he notes. Grieve the loss, the disappointment, and the pain. Then seek the understanding and support of others — and let go.
Says Coto, “By any measure, forgiveness pays for itself financially, physically, spiritually, and mentally. It’s good medicine.”
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