For 23 years, I have seen the best and worst of workplace behaviors. One of the worst is typified by people (especially leaders) with the knee-jerk reaction of "vengeance is mine!" when they feel wronged or unjustly attacked.

While some forms of anger are certainly healthy and needed, the types that make walls go up, build festering resentment, and unleash retributive justice in reaction to a problem may not be the best solution.

A more responsible approach to being dealt a bad hand is one that is rarely witnessed in corporate trenches, but it sets top leaders apart: the ability to forgive.

The science of forgiveness.

Psychologist Emma Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track and a rising star in the world of positive psychology, says this about forgiveness:

"Forgiveness seems to counteract the effects of anger on a physical level by lowering your blood pressure and on a psychological level by increasing your positive emotions. Research shows that people who are more forgiving have fewer negative emotions overall and therefore tend to do better in relationships. Another way it improves your social life is that forgiveness tends to make people kinder and more giving."

If that doesn't elevate your curiosity about practicing more forgiveness, think of how bringing unresolved workplace anger home affects your spouse and children. Seppälä expands on this:

"You are mad at a colleague and you bring your anger home. There, instead of enjoying dinner with the spouse and children you love, you spend your time brooding over someone you don't -- thereby wasting precious moments with your family. However, research shows that forgiveness can help you let go. It can help you move on from upsetting situations more easily so you can reap full enjoyment of the other aspects of your life. You literally lighten up. One study even showed that learning to forgive actually helps people perceive hills as less steep. They are even able to jump higher. While the psychological burden of anger weighs you down, forgiveness lightens your step."

David K. Williams, CEO of Fishbowl and author of The 7 Non-Negotiables of Winning: Tying Soft Traits to Hard Results, is a strong proponent of pushing forgiveness as a cultural trait across Fishbowl. He writes in Forbes, "Forgiveness restores hope and productivity in the workplace. Not forgiving creates separation. Hiding behind the shield of not offering understanding and forgiveness, people hurt themselves and others."

Health factors.

Choosing revenge, stonewalling, or withdrawal over the courageous act of forgiveness may seem like the easier route, but these acts will consume a person's other emotions, creating endless cycles of resentment and retaliation that lead to a toxic lifestyle.

According to research by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries in his paper, The Art of Forgiveness: Differentiating Transformational Leaders, hanging on to this kind of bitterness and hatred "create stress disorders, negatively affect the immune system, and are positively correlated with depression, anxiety, neuroticism, and premature death."

"In comparison," says Kets de Vries, "taking the high road of forgiveness contributes to greater spiritual and psychological well-being, lower anxiety levels, less stress, lower blood pressure and lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse. People who forgive more readily also tend to have fewer coronary health problems."

Practicing workplace forgiveness.

It's inevitable--with so much of business and work relying heavily on collaboration, service to others, and building relationships, the risk of offending someone or being offended is high.

A great starting point? Kets de Vries says it's practicing empathy--to put ourselves in others' shoes and tap into our own self-awareness to ask questions like: Why are certain things happening? Why did that person do that? Can I see another way out of this situation? How can I respond differently?

To further drive home the impact of workplace empathy, global training giant Development Dimensions International (DDI) conducted a study where they assessed more than 15,000 leaders from more than 300 organizations across 20 industries and 18 countries to determine which conversational skills have the highest impact on overall performance.

The findings, published in their High-Resolution Leadership report, discovered that empathy--yes, empathy--is the most critical driver of overall performance. Specifically, the ability to listen and respond with empathy, which suggests a critical link to fostering more forgiveness practice in the workplace.

Forgive but don't forget.

Finally, Kets de Vries stresses in his studies that forgiveness is not forgetting. He says, "Realistic forgiveness is about healing the memory of the harm, not erasing it. It is very different from condoning a transgression or excusing whatever unacceptable behavior has occurred." He notes, "Forgiving means not being a prisoner of the past. When we forgive we don't change the past, but we can change the future."

Have you witnessed the power of forgiveness at work? Tell us in the comments.

Published on: Apr 27, 2017
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