Forgiveness in the Workplace

Forgive seventy times seven times?
How? How? How? How? How? How? How?
Stop Counting.
– Mary Cabrini Durkin, OSU
& Sheila Durkin Dierks
Forgiveness is a response to perceived negative experiences
in the workplace in which the propensity toward
harbored negativity is displaced or dissolved
– David S. Bright
For us to mend our conflicts with others – personal
and communal – we have to
see where we are in conflict
with ourselves….To maintain this kind of presence requires
a considerable amount of spiritual “muscle” – an ability to
stay in the most uncomfortable of situations and not react.
It is the beginning of the end of conflict.
– Anne Hillman

In last week’s post, I spent some time reflecting on the first part of David Bright’s definition of forgiveness. I reflected on “negative experiences” and our emotional response to them. This week, I want to move into the second part of his definition. In particular, the phrase “harbored negativity” calls me to a further examination of our human emotions in the context of forgiveness.

Since many of us spend most of lives interacting with others in the workplace, I think it is important to place our reflections on forgiveness in that context. Bright says forgiveness “is central to the establishment, preservation and maintenance of human relationships that make up and sustain organizations.”  This is a key point. We work with people. We, and they, are only human. Therefore, we are bound to make mistakes or to otherwise act in ways that cause injury to ourselves or others.

We do not often speak in the workplace, however, about how we ought to deal with mistakes, their potential “negative” consequences, and our emotions around all that. Instead, we tend to avoid all conflict, seeking a false harmony rather than, as Hillman suggests, develop the spiritual “muscle” to move into and through conflict. Bright suggests that forgiveness “functions as a lubricant to the friction that occurs during the natural course of human interaction, in which the potential for inflicting or experiencing offense – via conflict, misunderstanding, hurt feelings, etc. – is an inherent possibility.”

Coming at Bright’s definition of forgiveness guided by lessons I have learned in studying and reflecting on the New Cosmology, the phrase “harbored negativity” brought to my mind the whole notion of the dualistic nature of our Universe. Just about everything in our Universe has its opposite: night and day, cold and hot, up and down, chaos and order, positive and negative. These dualisms exist in the Universe on a continuum of polar opposites, they are not separate.

Could there be a way, I wondered, to examine Bright’s notion of “negativity” in human interactions in the context of the whole polarity of positive/negative that exists in the larger Universe?  Does the natural dualism of the Universe into “positive” and “negative” enter into the human dimension?  Can we learn anything about forgiveness from pondering this question?

To begin, I decided I needed to understand more about how “positive” and “negative” function in our Universe. I recalled the positive and negative poles on a battery, and I realized I needed to go back to my early science lessons about electricity.  Luckily, today, we can simply “Google” the word, and have immediate access to anything and everything you would ever want to know about a topic like “electricity.” Doing so, I found a wonderful website where I learned again that electricity is all about what goes on in atoms.

You may recall that atoms have three main particles (before the days of quantum physics they were all we knew about): neutrons, protons, and electrons. Neutrons, as you might guess from the name, contain no electrical charge, they are “neutral.” Protons contain a positive charge, and electrons contain a negative charge.

Atoms ordinarily have a number of protons and electrons that balances out, and gives the atom an overall neutral charge. But, here’s where it gets interesting. It turns out that atoms can, either naturally or by being manipulated by outside forces (including scientists), lose one or more electrons, which go hopping off beyond the atom’s boundary. These free-wheeling electrons, no longer balanced by the presence of protons, still exhibit their “negative” charge. Meanwhile, their exit leaves the atom itself “unbalanced” with an excess of positive energy. However, “all atoms want to be balanced,” so without its missing electron(s), an atom has to focus its time and energy on searching for its own or other misplaced electrons, and “attract” those electrons back home with its overly positive charge.

How might we take this image of the inner dynamics of atoms and apply it to the inner workings of our organization and/or workplace? I think it might be helpful, first of all, to just expect that there are “positive” and “negative” ways of being we can exhibit in our human interactions. This is what is so helpful about knowing our Universe Story. A big step toward learning how to handle painful experiences more expertly starts with letting go of our narrow biases toward emotions, and taking the much larger view presented by our Universe Story.

If as humans, we are simply an expression of the larger Universe, what might I look like when I am being “positive”? Well, it turns out that the researchers who have studied our human “emotional intelligence” tell us that we have the capacity to exhibit “positive” emotions. They offer examples of these: excitement, amusement, happiness, elation, hope, compassion, generosity and confidence. When we experience one or more of these emotions, it has a “positive” impact on our brains and hormones, and affects our perceptions of the events around us.

In addition to positive emotions, we have the capacity to exhibit so-called “negative” emotions, such as hatred, greed, jealousy, or resentment.  (I have purposely not mentioned “anger” here, as you might expect, because I have come to know anger as a complex emotion with both positive and negative impacts.) These negative emotions also affect us physically. They cause additional emotions such as nervousness, anxiety, depression, cynicism, despair.

These so-called negative emotions are all part of the body’s natural “stress” response. Boyatzis and McKee (2005) tell us: “At work, the stress response often shows up as abrupt, thoughtless treatment of people, “ready-aim-fire” decisions, and cynicism.”

Now, I would like to suggest that, similar to the internal workings of the atom, learning more about our emotional state, and whether or not we are charged with “positive” or “negative” emotions in the moment, is very important to the overall balance and harmony of the workplace.

As a practical next step, this little reflection on the life of atoms invites me to become conscious of when I am operating like a “negative” electron on the loose. The event that caused me to spin out and become isolated from others might have been of my own making (my mistake) or it might have stemmed from forces over which I had no control (I have been injured by someone else’s mistake, incompetence, or deliberate action). In either case, to stay with the analogy of the atoms, I need to recognize that as a result of this mistake or injury, I may now be caught up in the energy of “negative” emotions. Left in this state, I might descend into bitterness, depression, even rage, and become more and more isolated. Just like an electron, I need some “positive” energy to help bring me back home, and back to harmony. How do we do that?

In the case of my own mistake, I must know for myself how to be positive, how to express the positive energy that will attract me back home to myself. In other words, I must forgive myself. I must express compassion toward my own weakness. I must feel the hope that says, “Next time, I’ll do better.”

In the case of an event affecting myself and others, I need to know how to bring my group back to harmony. I must be willing and able to express compassion and forgiveness toward my own colleague who caused, knowingly or unknowingly, the injury that has separated us. Even if the issue is only between two people in a larger group, the analogy of the atom tells us that whole group is now out of harmony, whether it wants to consciously recognize it or not. The whole group’s time and energy is now be focused on seeking balance and harmony; and this is time and energy not focused on the work it should be doing.

Placing the story of our experiences of injury and the emotions associated with them in the context of the Universe Story helps us to understand that the emotions we customary label “positive” and “negative” occur quite naturally as part of the process of our interactions with others. Doing so helps us see that we need to come to know the full scope and consequences of these emotions. We need to become more skillful at negotiating their energies in order to bring us back to and maintain harmony – within ourselves, within the workplace, and in all our interactions with others.

Durkin, M.C., OSU, and Durkin Dierks, S. (1998).  Jubilee journal: a workbook for forgiving in the millennium. Boulder, CO: WovenWord Press. On coverleaf.

Bright, D.S. (2006). Forgiveness as an attribute of leadership. In Leading with values: Positivity, virtue and high performance. Hess, E.D. and Cameron, K.S. Cambridge. p. 173.

Hillman, A. (2008). Awakening the energies of love: Discovering fire. Wilton Manors, FL: Bramble Books. pp. 127-128

Boyatzis, R. E. and McKee, A. (2005) Resonant leadership: renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope, and compassion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School. pp. 154-155.

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