Forgiveness is good for our health. It can reduce depression and stress, and increase empathy and hope. Unfortunately, it’s a quality that tends to be in short supply in the modern workplace.
I was reminded of this point while chatting with a reporter for a local TV station who was dubious about covering the Stanford Forgiveness Project, a teaching and research program in forgiveness founded in 1998.
“Why would a world-class science institution be studying something as squishy as forgiveness?” he asked.
I gave him an assignment: “Go around your newsroom and ask if anyone has a grudge or grievance against anyone else at the station. See what you come up with and get back to me.”
About 10 minutes later, the reporter called back. “Everyone here hates each other,” he said grudgingly.
The reporter’s response was somewhat tongue in cheek. But there’s a lot of truth to his findings. When people work in close proximity to each other, it’s inevitable that they’ll do selfish or thoughtless things that hurt their colleagues. In turn, their coworkers frequently take the offense personally—and so office grudges are born.
Left to fester, these resentments can make working together tough, affecting employee morale and productivity. I hear all the time about bitterness when companies downsize or new management takes over, forcing employees to make changes against their better judgment.
There’s a scientific reason why grudges are so hard to get over. When we’ve been hurt by someone, we don’t just acknowledge the offense once or twice in our minds and let it go. If the person is a fixture in our everyday lives, we tend to ruminate over the offense, and replaying the drama over and over again in our minds.
Each time we replay the offense, our adrenal glands release adrenaline into our bloodstream. Adrenaline is typically released in response to a threat—whether that’s a bear attack, a double-crossing boss, or the unkind words of an officemate.
Adrenaline’s purpose is to focus our attention on a problem so that we can solve it. To help us focus, we become jittery and tense. That’s not a pleasant feeling–and our reactive, primitive brains blame this sensation on the person who hurt or offended us.
Thinking about a perceived slight once or twice isn’t a problem. But run through an offense 20 times, and we create a pattern in our brains and bodies that is hard to alter. We can get to the point where simply thinking of the coworker who sent a rude email causes us to release adrenaline, even if the incident happened months ago. So not only do we tense up whenever we think of the co-worker we see everyday, we become afraid of the power they hold over us, and angry that they occupy so much of our brains’ real estate.
As director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, I work with people all the time who have work-related anger issues. Their bosses are unsupportive, and their coworkers take credit for their ideas. They feel unappreciated, overworked, and frustrated to bear the brunt of constant criticism.
But feelings of anger and bitterness don’t help solve these problems—and they often make people feel worse. So I teach these folks how to forgive, using a secular methodology honed by research.
I teach participants to take the offense they are troubled by less personally by following nine steps, which include taking greater responsibility for their own feelings and talking less harshly about the offense and the offender. When people do these things, our research shows they reduce their stress, anger and sense of victimization. Scientific studies also suggest that the process of forgiveness activates the parts of the brain responsible for taking the perspectives of others, empathy, and regulating our emotions, all of which help bring about an overall feeling of relief.
Forgiveness interrupts the stress cycle because it puts an end to our rumination on the offending incident. It also allows our positive emotions, which were previously blocked by feelings of resentment, to reemerge. That has a host of positive benefits for health and happiness. And most importantly, participants report greater resilience after practicing forgiveness and a sense that they can better handle working closely with other people.
The truth about longstanding grudges is that what tends to bother us most isn’t what another person did—it’s that we’re so upset that we can’t calm down. We get agitated when we feel out of control, and we blame this on our unappreciative boss or our cube-mate’s tendency to suck up to superiors. But it’s really ourselves that we’re struggling with.
When forgiveness is successful, we learn that we’re stronger than we thought. That power makes us less afraid of encountering difficulties with others, so we’re better able to focus on our work. So the next time someone gets under your skin at work, take a few deep breaths, remind yourself that you have control over the narrative you tell yourself, and practice the art of letting go.