Forgiveness: the oft-misunderstood and underutilized work productivity booster

Has somebody done you wrong? Join the crowd. Those readers of a certain age will recall the B.J. Thomas hit, Another somebody done somebody wrong song. Struck a responsive chord! It was a #1 single back in 1975. A lot of people identified with the lyrics. Those of you inclined to melancholy can find the words here. Want to listen to the music while you read the rest of the post? Click here.

The song deals with love. We’ve all been there. But let’s focus here on the workplace.

Even for those in Earth observations, science, and services, there’s plenty of wrongdoing going around. And although most of it is focused elsewhere, some of it spills over into your life and mine. We, or someone we care about deeply, get hurt. The implication? Daily, sometimes even more often, we confront a stark choice.

We can insist on our rights. Or we can forgive and move on.

Let’s look at the first option, the one most frequently chosen. This option is certainly justifiable. After all, doesn’t the wrong need to be corrected? And it’s not just about the wrong done to you or me. When we push back, the offender (the boss, the co-worker, the competitor, the vendor, the customer, the stranger on the phone) may learn a lesson – and go a little easier on the next person.

This is an option often chosen by both sides in the climate change discussion. And the experience from this and other environmental debates – those pitting the greens against much of big business, say, or the animal lovers versus the land developers – shows the pitfall. It may be that “the miscreant” in our eyes becomes “the victim” in his/her self-perception, feels unfairly wounded, injured. And the fight goes on, the hurt feelings build up, the arguments escalate, the positions harden. And the wrongdoer, instead of going easier on the next person, may lash out instead.

And there’s another potential outcome here. The troublemaker may be big enough and bad enough to remain oblivious to our retaliation. He/she may not even recognize we’ve been upset. Or may find our irritation amusing.

What do we do then?

Well, we often start by fuming, and then allow that to simmer down, to a festering, gnawing worm of resentment and bitterness. That bitterness might endure all day. Or for weeks. Or a lifetime. In some countries or parts of the world, bitterness is even handed down from generation to generation – a treasured heirloom [Think of the Middle East, or eastern Europe, or Ireland, or the U.S.; keeps getting closer to home, doesn’t it?]

Not good. And especially problematic for knowledge workers. If we opt to wait until justice is done, we may be waiting for a very long time. And trying to bury our heads in our work can prove elusive. My Dad hinted at this obliquely back when I was growing up. He told me once, “you can be angry or depressed or frustrated and if you’re doing physical labor, it won’t affect your output much. In fact, if you’re chopping wood, maybe it helps to be a little angry. But if you’re working on something that calls for abstract thought, the rest of your life better be going swimmingly. If anything at all is upsetting you, you’re going to struggle to concentrate.”


Maybe we should check out that second option – forgiveness.

The previous post walked us through some of the basics. The idea in a nutshell? We should forgive others who do us wrong. And one good starting point is to reflect a bit on all the wrongs we’ve done others that they’ve forgiven. As we feel grateful, any bitterness or resentment tends to slip away.

Now what we didn’t cover earlier was that forgiveness almost always turns out to be a largely private, unilateral matter. Consider the opposite option – public forgiveness. You walk up to the person who wronged you and say (and mean), “I forgive you.”

!!! Dramatic, yes. Memorable not just for you and the miscreant, but for any bystanders, probably. But effective? Only in the most extraordinary circumstances. Chances are we’re talking about forgiving an act of such horrific, tragic consequence that it happens at most a time or two in each of our lives.

So, forgiving someone else, as a practical matter, is typically a personal decision/action we make, one known only to ourselves. But the good part of this is that it happens on our timetable. We don’t have to wait for the person who did us the harm to see the light. And we can then immediately get on with our lives, again on our time frame. And as knowledge workers, we quickly recover our original effectiveness. But here’s the best news of all. Just as with every other activity in life, with practice we can get better at forgiveness and faster at return to full productivity. And there is plenty of daily opportunity for practice.

In the course of that practice, guess what? We’ll grow more sensitive to the effect of our own decisions and actions on those around us. We’ll get better at acting to their benefit, and at avoiding actions that might cause them harm and make it necessary for them to forgive us. When we do cause harm, we might actually apologize and ask for forgiveness.


Picture a national climate discussion under these rules. A dialog on health care. Education. Politics. Poverty and wealth. What would a conversation on the House floor look like?

So, do you and I want to be more productive tomorrow? We can get the ball rolling.

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One Response to Forgiveness: the oft-misunderstood and underutilized work productivity booster

  1. william hooke says:

    A colleague and good friend liked that this posting came on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

    October 7-8, 2011. A day on which our sins are forgiven, not just by one another, but by a Higher Power whose name is so holy that we dare not speak it.

    Truly a good day.


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