Why Is Your Job Harder When You Don't Forgive?
An interview with Dr. Loren Toussaint on forgiveness in the workplace.
Posted May 23, 2020
Many have moved to virtual platforms for work during COVID-19. But, despite workplace location changing, workplace relationships are still shaping our job experiences. These connections may have been great before and are growing stronger through online interactions. Or, as commonly happens, there may be significant hurt involved in workplace relationships.
Dr. Loren L. Toussaint is a professor of psychology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He directs the Laboratory for the Investigation of Mind, Body, and Spirit, and he studies virtues, especially forgiveness, and how these constructs are related to health and well-being. He encourages “everyday forgiveness” to build resilience and minimize stress in families, schools, health care, workplaces, and communities.
JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?
LT: Being hurt at work is a common occurrence, but not in the way you’re probably thinking. Our hurts are as interpersonal and social in nature as they are physical. For example, a current commercial for a popular employment website depicts a young woman who gets passed over for a promotion while her colleagues applaud the promoted individual during a boardroom ceremony. It appears the woman, clearly hurt, will soon be leaving her workplace as her phone lights up with a notification about an interview request. This commercial is a fictitious, yet real, example of toxic work environments that beget conflict, discord, and disillusionment. In these environments, employees are often burned out, unproductive, resentful, and perhaps even vengeful.
A thorny fact of modern life is that Americans spend more time than ever at work. Often, relationships between co-workers are not healthy, even downright hurtful. Billions of dollars each year are lost to workplace interpersonal stress and conflict.
So, what is the answer? Workplace justice is very important, but to help workers manage their negative thoughts, emotions, and motivations following a workplace offense, our study looked to understand what Americans ultimately need to cope with hurt at work. Given how commonplace being hurt by others in the workplace is, we became interested in forgiveness.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
LT: The main purpose of our study was to understand what role forgiveness might play in health and productivity at work amongst typical working Americans. So, we sought participants in an office setting and at an aviation electronics manufacturing plant. We studied working-age adults, both males and females. Our participants were in no way intended to represent all working adults in the United States, but the study was open to all who were interested in participating.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
LT: Surprisingly, there has been little research into forgiveness, unforgiveness, and its impact on the workplace. In our first study, we simply set out to determine if forgiveness would be beneficially related to absenteeism, productivity, and mental and physical health problems. Turns out: a lack of forgiveness was associated with less productivity and more health problems, but not absenteeism.
With these findings in mind, we planned another study to better understand why this might be. In our second study, we found that forgiveness was related to fewer negative work outcomes largely because it was related to fewer workplace interpersonal stresses and conflicts.
In short, forgiveness might result in better health and productivity at work. Forgiveness helps workers manage the all-too-common fall out of interpersonal stress and conflict. A boss or coworker might insult, but forgiving workers harbor the resentment for shorter periods of time, feel better, and get on with their work more quickly.
JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?
LT: There is a pretty good track record of research showing that forgiveness is related to improved health, especially mental health. When we found these associations in both of our studies, we simply confirmed what college students and other national samples of Americans told us: the data was true for working adults too.
Forgiving workers are healthier, generally speaking. But what came as a surprise was that forgiveness is also related to improved productivity. The research on this topic is less established—it wasn’t as clear what to expect. We suspected that in some instances, getting revenge for wrongdoing in the workplace might actually result in higher individual returns. For instance, if a co-worker steals a sale or takes credit for an idea, the violated co-worker could make a bigger sale or claim credit for an even bigger idea—a productivity bump from vengeful motives. But, this was not the case in our studies. Forgiveness, not revenge, is what promoted productivity.
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives?
LT: Ultimately, we all have to realize that seeking revenge at work is often an unproductive enterprise. There are probably a couple of important reasons why.
One, options are limited at work. There is only so much allowable revenge one can have, especially if the offender is a superior.
Two, the acceptable forms of revenge might hurt the offended worker. For instance, say someone chooses to work only half as hard to pay back their employer for passing them over for a promotion. This choice increases the chances of earning less money, lowering status in the organization, and potentially increasing the likeliness of getting passed over again. Yes, they're getting back at the employer, but they're also harming their own career.
Getting past being hurt at work is a tough task, but learning to forgive and move forward can be much more productive. One of the secrets to success in work may be forgiveness, not revenge. The saying “nice guys finish last” has been debunked by other research, and it may well be true in this case, too. Nice—that is forgiving—folks may well get ahead!
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others?
LT: If forgiveness is linked to better health and productivity in the workplace, then it would make sense to try to find ways to become more forgiving. There are lots of tips on how to do this, and a couple of methods are especially accessible and proven effective.
These include Everett Worthington’s REACH Forgiveness model and Fred Luskin’s Forgive for Good model. Both have been shown to be effective in helping people become more forgiving. Recently, both methods were tested in a head-to-head comparison and while there were some minimal differences in outcomes, overall the two methods proved equally effective and useful.
The Forgive for Good method was also recently studied in a financial consulting firm where it was found that financial advisers who learned to be more forgiving enjoyed better health outcomes and also showed a 24 percent increase in sales productivity.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
LT: Being hurt by others at work regrettably seems to be a permanent fixture of modern working life. So why isn’t the skill of forgiveness a standard component of soft skills training in the American workforce? Is there an anti-"nice guys" bias that still exists today? Do companies and organizations simply not know how to train employees with these skills? Or, do they not realize the importance of these types of skills?
Companies that are truly innovative and on the cutting edge of advances in healthy workplace design might well consider how they can foster forgiving workplaces. I would like to help in this regard, and in so doing, I hope to also gain additional insights on why forgiveness allows us to be more productive. Perhaps it gives more energy, better focus, or a more collegial attitude. I’m eager to learn more about the role of forgiveness in the workplace and invite collaborations in this pursuit.
Toussaint, L., Worthington, E. L., Van Tongeren, D. R., Hook, J., Berry, J. W., Shivy, V. A., … Davis, D. E. (2018). Forgiveness Working: Forgiveness, Health, and Productivity in the Workplace. American Journal of Health Promotion, 32(1), 59–67. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890117116662312