Forgiving Leaders Build Positive Organisational Cultures 

You may have heard the expression “To Forgive is divine”. It relegates forgivenesses the place of a religious expression. Forgiveness is far more than a religious expression or experience. It is also a leadership tool used in positive organisational cultures. Forgiving leaders build positive organisational cultures and more effective and productive work teams.

Forgiving leaders create positive organisational culture © Jan Martin Will | Dreamstime.com

Forgiving leaders create positive organisational culture
© Jan Martin Will | Dreamstime.com

I think one of the reasons forgiving is not often heralded as a leadership tool is the pervading picture people have of what strong leadership looks like. Forgiving leaders are perceived as weak leaders by some. To many, strong leadership does not tolerate weakness and comes down on mistakes and poor performance. It has a long memory for errors and makes very little room for any team member unfortunate enough to make the same mistake twice. The reality is that the strongest leaders work to build forgiveness into the fabric of their organisation’s culture.

Unforgiveness in a leader creates a risk adverse team. It stifles innovation and creates a permission giving culture.

Many years ago a leader in my organisation made a private and public commitment to lead a new area of development in the coming year. I announced the new initiative, broadcasting it far and wide. When it didn’t happening really felt embarrassed and let down. Some months later that team member told me he believed I had a problem with forgiveness. After I got over my silent anger at his comment I took some time to reflect on what he had said. Slowly, I began to see he was right.

He had picked up on the changes he had observed in the way I spoke with him and related with him after I felt he had let me down. There had been a definite chill in the air, a tension in the atmosphere, when he was involved in any discussion with me. He was an excellent staff member who mentored others and went above and beyond in many aspects of his work. Yet I allowed my sense of personal embarrassment to create a residual resentment towards him. I had not forgiven him.

This is an especially good example of what I am trying to communicate because, to this day, I don’t know if he ever knew how I felt. I never took him aside to ask for an explanation. I should have. I certainly would if it happened today. He never apologised or acknowledged he had done anything wrong. He didn’t need to for me to forgive him. My problem was not that I needed to hear that he was wrong and I was right. It wasn’t that he needed to be sorry. That was his problem. My problem was I hadn’t forgiven him. This unforgiveness created a tension between us and prevented me from being able to see all the great work he was doing.

Everyone in the team can sense when there is unforgiveness between team members.

Tensions between leaders and team members have a profound effect on organisational culture. We have all experienced the extremes of this when you feel you could cut the air with a knife. Everyone around can feel it even if they can’t quite pinpoint the source. Such tensions quickly begin to affect everyone in the organisation, including those not directly involved.

Without leadership intervention unforgiveness is toxic to organisational culture.

When the issues are between two other team members forgiving leaders can mediate a resolution. Forgiving leaders can help team members forgive each other and work together to restore relationship.

In my example, when I asked myself why I was upset with him, even months later, the only answer I could find was a selfish sense of embarrassment. I was not one of the forgiving leaders.

Fourth Question Leaders operate from a forgiving disposition © Raywoo | Dreamstime.com

Fourth Question Leaders operate from a forgiving disposition
© Raywoo | Dreamstime.com

I know the Bible tells us that God forgets things when He forgives them, perhaps this is the part of forgiveness which is divine. Forgiving leaders do not forget. Leadership forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about making sure you are able to relate to the members of your team with no resentment, hurt or residual anger. If a leader holds onto unforgiveness when a team member lets them down it is less possible to help them work through the learning available from what has happened. The focus will be more on attributing blame than on examining what happened to learn how to avoid it next time. Unforgiveness doesn’t hurt the other person, it hurts the person holding onto it. It hurts the leader who fails to forgive and it therefore hurts the organisation.

Forgiving doesn’t mean a team member will not be held to account, or experience the consequences of a mistake. It will, however, deeply affect the way in which a leader will walk a team member through those consequences. Even if it means dismissal.

Unforgiveness and Forgiveness are leadership dispositions. You can choose your leadership disposition.

Learn more about leadership forgiveness in the next post.

Takeaways

  • Forgiving leaders enhance innovation and risk taking in their organisations.
  • Unforgiveness is toxic to organisational cultures.
  • Forgiving leaders are not forgetting leaders.
  • The strongest leaders work to build forgiveness into the fabric of their organisation’s culture.

Additional Resources

Forgiveness: The Least Understood Leadership Trait in the Workplace
Forgiveness: A Must-Have for Leaders
How to Connect Forgiveness and Accountability
Bad Leaders Don’t use the “F” Word