OWNER'S MANUAL

The Power of Forgiveness

To discipline is to manage, but sometimes to forgive is to truly lead.
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Back then, when a person was pulled over, he didn't stay in his car and wait for the officer to approach. Instead, he'd take the walk of shame back to the police car while others more fortunate drove smugly by.

So I trudged back, settled into the passenger seat of the unmarked car, and glanced at the radar display on the console.

94.

All-righty-then.

I turned back to the officer. He was wearing a suit instead of a uniform and used his rearview mirror to adjust his necktie.

"You know," he said, "I may not look it, but I'm a gambling man. When you took off at the stoplight back there, I thought, Hey, I bet he didn't notice me.

"I was right. When you hit 65 miles an hour, I thought about pulling you over, but I thought, Nah, I bet he'll go faster. Then you hit 75. I almost hit my lights but thought, Hmm. There aren't any cars around, and he's not really putting anyone in danger. I bet he's not done yet.

"Then you hit 85. I have to admit, I was very, very tempted, but then I thought, No, hang on; call me crazy, but I really do believe this boy's got a little more in him.

"And sure enough," he said as he laughed, smacked the steering wheel, and finally turned to face me, "You did!"

You know how after you do something stupid, you desperately wish you could get those few seconds back so you can do something that makes everything turn out OK? I mentally replayed pulling up near him at the stoplight on Route 42 in Dayton. Although his car looked like an unmarked car, there were no lights, no antennas, no snarl of equipment on the dashboard, no driver in a uniform...so I didn't give it another thought until I looked in my mirror and saw lights flashing in its grill. I really wanted that incorrect judgment back.

Eventually, he stopped chuckling, and his expression turned serious. "Now," he said. "You want to explain why you were in such a hurry?"

Urban legend has it that creative conversational strategies influence policemen. Maybe that's true, but nothing excuses 94 mph in a 55 mph zone.

"My alarm didn't go off," I answered, "and I didn't want to be late for work."

I shrugged and shook my head. "Sorry. It was stupid."

He sat quietly for a few moments while I thought about the future. Twenty miles per hour over the speed limit qualified as reckless driving. I figured 40 miles per hour over was a one-way ticket to that magical land where people get a chauffeured trip to the magistrate's office, lose their license, and hassle friends for rides for the next six months.

He raised his eyebrows. "That's it? That's all you've got?"

"Yes, sir," I said, turning away to look down. "That's it. I was in a hurry and went too fast."

"Huh," he said. I waited for him to start writing my ticket.

"Next time," he said, "just go ahead and be late, OK? Being late for work isn't the end of the world."

I nodded, still waiting for him to reach for his pen. "Go on," he said, pretending to be frustrated. He pushed the reset button on the radar. "You're going to be late."

I whipped my head up and stared. "Look, I know those things are fast," he said, nodding toward my bike. "And I know you race 'em. Just keep it down. You might be good, but you just can't trust what other people will do."

I thanked him about 50 times in 10 seconds and then jumped out before he could reconsider. As I was starting my bike, he rolled up beside me, window down, and leaned across the seat.

"You can still make it to work on time," he yelled. "Follow me into town. I can at least get you to where I turn off for the courthouse."

So for the second time that day, I was speeding--only this time while following a policeman.

After my immediate relief wore off, I started to feel guilty. I shouldn't have gone that fast. It was unnecessary. It was stupid.

And I felt bad the police supervisor had to stop me. In a strange way, I felt he had been disappointed in me.

And, stranger yet, I did slow down; somehow, I felt I owed him that much.

The same thing can happen at work. When employees make mistakes, it's natural to try to ensure they don't make those same mistake again. So we give feedback. We correct. We discipline. We even fire employees.

Yet discipline can often shift the focus off the underlying event onto the disciplinary action. We can easily dwell on the punishment and how "unfair" it is instead of on correcting what we did to deserve the feedback, the correction, or the discipline.

Most employees are their own worst critics. The employee who shipped the wrong product? He knows he messed up. He already feels bad about it. The employee who gave a customer an inaccurate and incomplete proposal? She knows she messed up. She already feels bad about it. I guarantee neither will ever forget it--and will try really hard to make sure it never happens again. And that's the result you want.

And that's why sometimes the best thing you can do is look the employee in the eye, nod, and walk away.

After all, your only goal is that the employee to learn from a mistake--and the act of forgiveness is often much more powerful than any act of discipline can ever be.

More in my "The Power Of..." series:

Last updated: May 8, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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