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3 Most Important Words to Say to Employees After They Screw Up

When the stakes are high and an employee slips up big time, what you say next is crucial.
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Sooner or later, someone on your team is going to screw up. Hopefully the stakes will be low when it happens. Either way, be prepared to say three words that may not come so easily, at least not right away: I forgive you.  

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, a distinguished professor of leadership development and organizational change at INSEAD in France and Singapore, says one of the most important skills a leader can learn is forgiveness. "The ability to forgive is an essential capability for any leader wishing to make a difference," Kets de Vries writes in the Harvard Business Review.

If you do not absolve and exonerate your employees of their trespasses, you run the risk of creating a toxic environment for your entire company: "Leaders have such an important effect on other people's lives that their lack of forgiveness can create a climate where anger, bitterness and animosity prevent a team, an organization, a society, and even a nation from being the best they can be," he writes. "Good leaders, of course, are aware of how costly it is to hold on to grudges and how an unforgiving attitude keeps people from moving forward."

Forgiveness, of course, doesn't mean you excuse hurtful, inappropriate, or unprofessional behavior. But it does mean you let go of an instinct for getting revenge and causing further harm. "[Forgiveness] is about healing the memory of the harm, not erasing it," Kets de Vries says.

In Kets de Vries' research on leadership and psychodynamic-systemic orientation, he found three tendencies that get in the way of forgiving someone. 

1. You tend to obsess over the past.

Kets de Vries found that "obsessional rumination" can make people vengeful. "Unforgiving people spend their time obsessing about their pasts," he writes. But you need to move on. He suggests taking advice from Mahatma Gandhi's mantra: "An-eye-for-an-eye only ends up making the whole world blind."

2. You're unable to empathize with your employees.

A major roadblock to forgiveness is a lack of empathy, an inability to see situations from a different perspective. "Imagining and feeling what another person experiences--putting yourself in the other person's proverbial shoes--allows you to consider the motivations of the transgressor, giving you a route to forgiveness," he writes. he says empathy is learned early in life, but it is also a skill you can work on by not rushing to judgment, conclusions, or rash interpretations of your employees' motivations.

3. You suffer from envy.

A sense of deprivation, or a fixation with what you do not have, can make you feel negatively towards your employees--especially when they achieve success. And this envy can translate into emotional explosiveness and outbursts of rage--hardly the kind of emotions that help with forgiveness.

One or more of these sound familiar? You probably need to work on mastering the skill of forgiveness.

Last updated: Dec 5, 2013

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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