Two monks were strolling by a stream on their way home to the monastery. They were startled by the sound of a young woman sitting by the stream, crying softly. She needed to cross to get to her wedding, but she was fearful that doing so might ruin her beautiful handmade gown.
In this particular sect, monks were prohibited from touching women. But one monk was filled with compassion for the bride. Ignoring the sanction, he hoisted the woman on his shoulders and carried her across the stream…
The second monk was livid. “How could you do that?” he scolded. “You know we are forbidden even to touch a woman.”
The offending monk listened in silence to a stern lecture that lasted all the way back to the monastery … After returning to the monastery, he fell asleep for a few hours. He was awakened in the middle of the night by his fellow monk. “How could you carry that woman?” his agitated friend cried out. “Someone else could have helped her across the stream.”
The accused monk replied: “I only carried her across the stream. You have carried her all the way back to the monastery.”
In addition to recognizing the difference between the law and the spirit of the law, this Buddhist parable illustrates the challenge and the value of letting go … of forgiving, rather than blaming those who have in some way let us down.
Forgiveness in the workplace
How often do we find ourselves holding on to a decision, a mistake, an experience in the workplace that has been hurtful or irritating for us? What judgments have we made about others that prevent us from engaging with them in order to do our best work? What is our response when we feel as though someone that we work with has betrayed us? Are we inclined to forgive those who have harmed us in some way?
Webster’s New World College Dictionary states that: “to forgive is to give up resentment against or the desire to punish; stop being angry with; pardon or to overlook.” Because we do not have good models for forgiveness in our personal lives, it creates a challenge in the workplace. Many people live with the belief that to ask for or to offer forgiveness is a sign of weakness. We have learned to cover our mistakes rather than appreciating that mistakes are part of the human condition. For some of us, we have been taught that forgiving another is a sign of weakness, or is somehow condoning their behavior.
The irony about forgiveness is that it is less important for the other than it is for the person doing the forgiving. A wonderful mentor in my life once suggested to me that “holding on to resentment and anger toward another is like eating rat poison and hoping the rat dies.”
Culture and forgiveness
Business success is rooted in relationship. When leaders create a culture of forgiveness, rather than a culture of blame, employees have a greater opportunity to create business success. Forgiveness begins at the individual level. In order for forgiveness to be part of an organizational culture, leaders need to demonstrate the capacity to forgive.
Connie Domino in her book, “The Law of Forgiveness,” devotes a chapter to the scientific evidence for the power of forgiveness. One of the studies that she cites was done by Dr. Tom Farrow, a clinical psychologist from the University of Sheffield, in the United Kingdom. Dr. Farrow studied the impact of forgiveness on the brain. “Using high definition magnetic resonance imaging, he and his colleagues scanned the brain, and found that when a person is forgiving there is an increase in activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, the zone also responsible for problem-solving and complex thought, or the higher functions of thinking and reasoning.”
It makes sense that when we are filled with anger and resentment, fear and hostility, our capacity to think rationally is significantly reduced. We resort to our default behavior which is either “fight or flight.” Collective creative energy is reduced within a workplace that fosters blame rather than forgiveness.
As you consider your leadership within your organization, which of the two monks would others say reflect who you are? What is the cost if you are creating a culture of blame?
Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.