Years ago, I spent the day bike riding in Venice Beach. Yes, the world famous Venice Beach in Southern California, where the misfit, the absurd, and the counter-cultural converge into one long surreal boardwalk of fantastic people watching.
Street performers, Hare Krishnas, inline skaters, ripped muscle men, and drum circles entertain you for hours under sun-kissed skies.
This day, however, got the worse of me. Stay with me for the work and business context.
As I was making the trek toward neighboring Santa Monica on my mountain bike, another biker pulled out partially out of a blind spot right in front of me. As I put on the brakes hard, I did my best Greg Louganis over the handlebars, except that I splattered myself on the cement below.
And then this happened.
Male machismo immediately kicked in as the natural course of countering embarrassment. As I picked myself off the pavement, and scanned the missing skin and flowing blood on my elbows and knees, I aimed to reduce this other biker to a quivering little man in the prosecuting fury I was about to unleash. After all, it was his fault.
Here's the extend of our dialogue, revised for a PG-13 audience:
Stranger: I'm, I'm sorry!
Me (fuming): What the (heck) were you doing pulling out of nowhere without looking?!?!?!
Stranger: I didn't really come out all the way, there was plenty of room for you.
Me: No, you did! Look where you are! (pointing to his front tire sticking out onto the bike path).
Stranger: I'm really sorry. (he meant it in a sincere way)
Me (inches from his face): Sorry isn't good enough! Next time, think about what you're doing, [jerkity jerk jerk]!!
And off I went, fuming and bleeding, leaving behind this bewildered and scared man who apologized twice for an honest mistake even I could've made.
It wasn't twenty seconds later, after Jekyl and Hyde syndrome had reversed itself, that I came to my senses and realized how I had just reacted. It just wasn't who I am as a person. I was paralyzed with emotions about how completely out of character I had gone, and how I had shown this man an example totally contrary to my normal behavior. And he apologized twice.
For the next five minutes as I kept on riding, all I kept thinking about was how I failed miserably in adhering to one of the most important leadership (and human) virtues, one that the corporate world has yet to learn and adopt.
Wait for it...
I speak of forgiveness. But before you tune me out, consider what the research is saying it does for your work culture.
The Case for Forgiveness
An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye...ends in making everyone blind. (Mahatma Ghandi)
Journalist Megan Feldman Bettencourt knows a thing or two about the topic of forgiveness. In her book Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World, she explores how forgiveness, when practiced in the right ways, can lead to a better world.
As she puts it, "what has been traditionally seen as a religious ideal is now an important skill for anyone, whether atheist, agnostic, or believer, who seeks to live a healthy, happy life."
In a book excerpt posted on Salon, Bettencourt highlights the Campaign for Forgiveness Research which "sparked dialogue and interest in the broader scientific community." She says that in 1998 there were 58 empirical studies on forgiveness in the research literature. By 2005, when the campaign concluded, that number ballooned to 950.
Bettencourt also mentions the important work by Dr. Frederic Luskin, the cofounder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. In this profound video clip defining forgiveness from the scientific perspective, he refers to forgiveness as "an assertive creation of peace in the present."
Dr. Luskin has concluded in multiple studies that forgiveness "elevates mood and increases optimism, while not forgiving is positively correlated with depression, anxiety, and hostility."
Here's Dr. Luskin in Triumph of the Heart:
When you don't forgive you release all the chemicals of the stress response. Each time you react, adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine enter the body. When it's a chronic grudge, you could think about it twenty times a day, and those chemicals limit creativity, they limit problem-solving. Cortisol and norepinephrine cause your brain to enter what we call 'the no- thinking zone,' and over time, they lead you to feel helpless and like a victim. When you forgive, you wipe all of that clean.
Translation: Not forgiving dumbs you down fast!
Forgiveness as a Competitive Advantage?
In the business context, forgiveness is often misunderstood, rarely discussed or formally practiced as a corporate value in most organizations, even nonprofit. But it should be because the positive impact of forgiveness to potentially improve well-being, happiness, and productivity in the workplace is now clearly evident.
Greater Good reports that a new study involving more than 200 employees showed that forgiveness was "linked to increased productivity, decreased absenteeism (fewer days missing work), and fewer mental and physical health problems, such as sadness and headaches."
This means that the very act of forgiving leads to better relationships at work. If you're in management, pay attention: With better relationships comes greater trust. With greater trust comes more focus, collaboration, and speed. And when work is performed at this high level, your productivity goes up. How's that for a bottom line?
And for team members and colleagues that have stopped talking, the research is also key to our understanding of how to diffuse conflict. When coworkers can't forgive one another for a wrongdoing, you can expect the likelihood of disengagement, a lack of collaboration, and aggressive behavior to take place. It causes unnecessary stress for you and your colleagues. Not good for productivity.
The flipside of practicing forgiveness as a personal or organizational value has true-to-life benefits. It restores trust and sets things right so the work environment is running on all cylinders again. Very good for productivity.
Forgiveness also extends outwardly to impact others not involved in the conflict. When colleagues observe others practicing forgiveness, research says it often "fosters positive emotions that can improve decision-making, cognitive functioning, and the quality of relationships."
Bringing It Home
Back to Venice Beach, I verbally assaulted a complete stranger because I was "mad" and felt entitled, much like so many self-absorbed leaders in all their bravado feel when their peers or subordinates make mistakes.
And it's unfortunate because treating other human beings this way make them feel inferior. Nobody at work deserves such harshness as it destroys morale and sucks the energy out of the room.
The antidote? You'll find it in how leaders treat themselves first. When leaders have self-respect, respect is extended outwardly to those under their care. From there it unravels: They learn to forgive themselves, and develop compassion and empathy towards others--two more components of outstanding leadership.
Yes, believe me when I say this, if forgiveness is still a foreign concept to you. The higher road of forgiveness does wonders because it empties the bitterness from our lives and restores peace in our hearts so we can move on and be productive and great contributors.
I learned my lesson on the bike path in Venice, and now practice forgiveness as a leadership trait that gets respect and builds trust. And now science is backing it up.
Who do you need to forgive today?