Leadership has never taken place and will never take place in a vacuum. To be a leader one has to involve others. It is the ‘involving of others’ that brings about the relational challenges. Up until a few years back, I would have never seen the necessity of talking about unforgiveness in the work environment. To me the issue of unforgiveness was something confined to religious circles or therapy rooms. I was wrong. Having worked with so many leaders, I have witnessed the toxic effects of unforgiveness, both on the leader and those they lead.
Episodes requiring forgiveness in the workplace can range from simple errors that may cause some difficulty or cost to the organisation right through to major life-changing events such as downsizing and the accompanying lay-offs or even national tragedies. They can impact an individual, a family, an entire company or even the economy of a country. Wherever unforgiveness exists in a team or an organisation it seeps into every relationship negatively affecting productivity and innovation at every level.
Consequences of unforgiveness
- Unforgiveness undermines effectiveness. Harbouring ill intents can create a climate where anger, bitterness and animosity prevent your whole team, family, organisation, society or nation from being creative, learning, growing and developing its full potential.
- Unforgiveness impacts everyone who comes into contact with the leader who holds it. As a leader, you cannot afford this ‘luxury’. The unforgiveness shadow is cast as a result of situations and break down in relationships, which result in a residual sense of anger, resentment, mistrust or any immediate negative emotional response when the other person is involved.
- Results in the creation of multiple other problems. Harbouring unforgiveness and taking revenge may make you feel righteous temporarily. However, it also opens a Pandora’s box of counter-reactions: revenge tends to invite more revenge. In spite of the danger of entering a downward spiral, humankind seems to find it easier to hate than to forgive, perceiving it as intolerable that the hurtful behaviour would go unpunished.
- Unforgiveness can be very costly to your mental and physical health. It takes an enormous amount of energy to hate, and to keep hatred in place. When you cannot forgive your ‘followers’ who have hurt you, these feelings can become like a mental poison that destroys the system from within you. Hatred, spite, bitterness and vindictiveness create a fertile ground for stress disorders, negatively affecting the immune system. Effective leaders lead from within, so if your inside is corrupt and ‘sick’ this means you will not be as effective as you can be when you are not harbouring unforgiveness.
- Another tragic consequence of unforgiveness is an inability to give and receive love. As a leader, there is an expectation that you treat others fairly, you think the best of others and you extend love in ways that create a healthy working environment. If you cannot risk being hurt again you cannot love unconditionally. Those who harbour unforgiveness never fully and completely open their hearts to others. They build up walls to protect themselves and prevent any future wounds. They carefully guard their relationships, letting very few people in. Without realising it, those walls of protection become a prison.
Suggestions for cultivating forgiveness
The process of forgiving is one of the most exhausting struggles a leader can face as it involves both your emotions and your mind. Typically, when someone is hurt they replay the hurt for days, months, weeks and even years, thus repeatedly experiencing the most toxic emotions. These emotions drain your energy resources.
- Get yourself in the right place first. First, admit the pain.When you name a painful emotion (not stuffing or rehearsing it), you actually decrease that negative emotion’s intensity. When you feel slighted by others, there is a loss of pride, of trust, of self-esteem and you have to let yourself go through a grieving process to get to forgiveness. As you do this, know that emotion will probably come up. The key is to neither resist what comes up nor dwell in the drama of it. Just acknowledge it, fully feel what comes up, and let it pass.
- Leaders must heal in order to lead. You have to let go of the things that have hurt you to ensure that they do not rise up and cause pain to someone else. I know this is easier said than done. Given all opposing forces, the act of forgiving is something that requires a lot of effort and courage. But it also means that being forgiving is, contrary to what many believe, a sign not of weakness but considerable strength.
- Practice being forgiving. Independent of whether someone has actually asked for forgiveness, you can go ahead and decide to just forgive him or her.
- Begin to choose to forgive the person.Notice that I used the word ‘begin’. Some offences can be quickly forgiven. Some may take a long time to fully forgive. Forgiveness is a process. The deeper the pain, the longer it takes. It is not so much forgive and forget. Rather, true forgiveness is more like remembering it less and less.
- Do good. No matter what anyone does to you, no one can take away your capacity to do good. You lose it only by willingly giving it up yourself. There are so many benefits associated with forgiveness.
This article is an extract form my book, Leadership Syndromes (to be published in June). If any of the issues above resonated with you, and would like to find ways of supporting yourself as a leader, why not take advantage and book yourself on our free leadership consultation coaching session by clicking here.
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Article written by Vongai Nyahunzvi, Executive Director of VCN Consultancy Services l Leadership Development l Executive Coaching l Strategist l Team Development l Author