An eye for an eye – isn’t the best way to lead

I used to work with a headteacher who constantly bemoaned the fact that their teachers “Wouldn’t know what innovation was if they bumped into it in the street”. The ironic thing about this was that this was someone who would harangue any individual who made the slightest mistake.  Was it any wonder that people learned to keep their heads down and stayed within their ‘comfort zone’? I genuinely felt sorry for the people who worked in that school.

Yet leaders are under immense pressure these days to deliver improved outcomes with fewer and fewer resources. The only solution to this challenge is to find innovative ways of working. For innovation to take place people need to operate within a culture where they have the confidence and necessary ‘space’ to take risks. This ‘space for innovation’ requires leaders to establish a culture of forgiveness. In the course of this essay I intend to define forgiveness; explore why leaders find it difficult to forgive; explain why and how forgiveness can enhance an organisation; and, finally conclude by arguing that forgiveness is a fundamental leadership virtue, which can have a dramatic impact upon the well-being of the leaders and staff, and, in so doing, the effectiveness of the entire organisation.

The dictionary definition of forgiveness is “To grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt”. Forgiveness further relates to renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger due to a perceived offense, disagreement or mistake.

It is this latter cause, the notion of forgiving a mistake, which carries with it the most challenging element for modern leaders who are committed to creating a ‘mistake free’, ‘results driven’, ‘outcome focused’, ‘high performing’ environment.

Yet when leaders establish boundaries where employees know that they will not be forgiven if they make a mistake, then the outcome is quite the opposite from what is intended. For what is apparent from current research is that if people feel that they will not be forgiven for making mistakes, they will tend to operate well within those boundaries – even if the leader only implies these boundaries.

In the modern workplace, with ever-reducing budgets, greater organisational scrutiny, public accountability, and plummeting numbers of people to do ever-increasing amounts of work, the pressure to closely manage the performance of employees has never been greater.

This leads many managers towards a form of behaviour that actually has a ‘diminishing’ impact upon their employees, but also upon themselves, and organisational effectiveness. The leadership behaviour I am referring to is one that is intolerant of mistakes, and characterised by punishment and retribution.

Traditional justice has often been based upon the law of retribution, i.e. and eye for an eye. Mahatama Ghandi’s response to this notion of equivalency was to observe that “An eye – for an eye – for an eye…..ends in making everybody blind”.

Employees who are forgiven for mistakes, and who work in a forgiving culture are much more likely to be creative, take appropriate risks, and learn and grow their own leadership capabilities. For forgiveness helps people to have a more positive outlook on the future and much less likely to hide mistakes or transgressions.

An organisation that promotes forgiveness will be engaged in positive and constructive behaviour, which eventually increases the effectiveness of the organisation. Yet a culture of forgiveness should not be taken to mean a ‘free for all’, ‘do as you feel’ approach to work, nor does it imply that everything can be forgiven, e.g. sexual harassment.

Modern organisations are complex places with inter-relationships and team-based working creating a combustible environment for conflict and dispute, especially when fuelled by the budgetary challenges facing organisations. Where a leader cannot forgive and pardon a transgression, then the conflict is left unresolved and creates a drag on the organisation. In turn, this revenge behaviour from the leader sucks the confidence and vibrancy out of any organisation.

At a time when many organisations are attempting to reduce the levels of stress, a simple step might be to set about creating a culture of forgiveness where it becomes possible to use mistakes, faults, and breakdowns as useful learning opportunities for all involved. Leaders have the power to profoundly influence this culture within an organisation through the promotion of a forgiving culture – perhaps more so than any other feature of their leadership behaviour. Where this culture of restitution exists in place of one of revenge it can overcome any feelings of bitterness and hate, the fertile conditions for stress, and enable people to make an extra effort – with all the positive consequences that this can have upon the bottom-line. Such a culture enables authentic, courageous and open conversations – where both the leader and the employee understand that forgiveness can be a two-way process.

It’s this final element that is of great significance in the current stress-inducing environment, i.e. the welfare of the leaders themselves. Once again we find through research that the very act of forgiveness has a positive effect upon the well being of the leader. Instead of nursing grievances and grudges they can move on and focus upon facilitating excellence and improvement – the job that they are paid to do.

Far from ‘forgiveness’ being a sign of leadership weakness or timidity then, it is, in actual fact, a virtue and a real indication of fortitude and self-confidence. Never has it been more important for leaders to demonstrate forgiveness and create the necessary ‘space for innovation’ for the kind of fundamental changes that are necessary to successfully address our current challenges.

I’ll leave the last words with Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest exponent of forgiveness in modern times:

“Forgiveness liberates the soul; it removes fear, that’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”