Stop Chasing the Snake!

Many people believe that forgiveness is solely a religious topic or should be relegated to the subject of sermons. After all, what benefit can a discussion of forgiveness have in the real-world, white-knuckle business arena? To appreciate the scope of possibilities, we are wise to consider what it costs us to have resentment, bitterness, selfishness, envy, factions, grudges, turf wars, gossip, and even hatred exist within the walls of our organization because we, or others, will not forgive, reconcile, and move past wrongs and offenses. The following five thoughts will put the importance of forgiving and reconciling in perspective, and make clear its importance in building and maintaining vital relationships between teammates, associates, partners, vendors, competitors, and more.

1. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that the wrong they did to you is right. It means instead that you are going to release the anger and bitterness you feel about what happened, move past it, and invest your valuable time, energy, and creative flow into activities far more productive than nursing and rehearsing past offenses.

2. Forgiveness doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. Forgiving someone for what they did to you doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be consequences for their actions.

In many cases, you won’t have the freedom or power to apply incidental or legal consequences to those who wrong you, yet you may be tempted to exact vengeance nonetheless. Be careful. I understand and respect that different faiths handle forgiveness and consequences in various ways. For instance, my Christian doctrine tells me that vengeance is God’s because His perspective is perfect. He sees the heart, weighs motives & disciplines as He sees fit. As a result, I’m well advised to let Him do His job.

In other instances, you may have direct control over necessary consequences and will be expected to apply them to maintain a high performance culture. In such instances, you have an opportunity to balance forgiveness with consequences. For example, when an employee repeatedly lied to us about a performance issues we forgave him, but we still fired him because he violated a non-negotiable and clearly stated value that our company holds sacred. Because we forgave him, we weren’t bitter or angry towards him. Rather, we cared enough to confront and coach him to do better in the future, and earnestly wished this young man the best as he left our organization. In other words, we have forgiven him, but forgiveness didn’t mean he escaped the consequences of his actions. If he had committed a lesser offense, we may have given him a second chance. But we couldn’t afford to confuse forgiving this person with allowing him to compromise our engraved-in-granite value concerning lying.

3. Forgiving helps you more than the person you forgive. Sometimes people think they’re getting even with someone by not forgiving him or her, but the sad fact is that the offender may be barely affected by, or aware of, your unforgiveness. On the other hand, what you’re suffering as a result of bitterness, resentment, anger and lack of peace may be severe.

If you go beyond forgiving the person and reach out to reconcile with them it matters not whether they accept or reject your reconciliatory gesture. You will have satisfied your leadership obligation to make the first move even though it was difficult. In the process you will have also strengthened your character, peace of mind, and freed yourself from the distracting guilt or anger associated with leaving an area of offense unaddressed or unresolved.

Think about it this way: if a poisonous snake bites you, what should you do first: kill the snake in vengeance or remove the venom so that you can begin to heal? Many people choose, in effect, to chase the snake to get even, failing to realize that their actions cause the poison to spread faster, guaranteeing a quicker death for them as the snake escapes unscathed. This metaphor holds true for those who fail to forgive in business or life. Rather than begin the healing process by removing the venom of the offense, they hold onto the poison, bond with it, rehearse it over again in their minds, and exacerbate their own inner torment. By seeking vengeance they die faster: emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and even physically.

4. Reconcile immediately. If you offend another, or are offended by someone else, don’t wait for the other person to make the first move. Take the initiative and go clear the air, and do so without feeling the need to prove you are right, or to judge someone else as wrong.

I learned long ago that it was important to forgive quickly, and also recognized that it is easier said than done. I never fully appreciated why speed was so important until July of 2002. I relate my story in chapter 5 of How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK. Here’s an excerpt from that passage:

My mother and I had endured a strained relationship for many years. As her health worsened, and I was able to spend less time with her because of my travels, I had a strong urge to reconcile with her during an evening I spent at her home during a visit.

The evening before I was supposed to leave back for California we sat in the living room alone, she on a couch and I in a chair across the room. It was just her and me. The moment was perfect. I wanted to go over and tell her how sorry I was for the hard feelings we had nurtured for too long and assure her that I cared for her and wanted to start over again in our relationship. But for reasons I still cannot explain, I sat pat. The moment soon passed, and others came into the room, and I determined that I would speak with her in the morning before she and my dad took me to the airport. That never happened. The next morning was hectic as I packed and left for the 90-mile trip to the Knoxville airport. As a result, I resolved to have my talk with her when I called the next Sunday. That never happened either. The Saturday before I was to call her, my mother died. The guilt I carried in the wake of her death was even greater than the resentment and bitterness I felt during the years we were estranged. When I finally said the words I intended to say for so long, I spoke them to her as she lay in a coffin.

Based on what you’ve just read, some of you may wish to stop reading this and make the call, write the letter, or pay the personal visit you’ve put off for too long.

5. Forgive yourself. Sometimes the most difficult person to forgive is you. Maybe it was the bad investment or wrong hire, a poor career choice, an ill-conceived acquisition or some personal character failing that caused loss or pain. Let yourself off the hook, because the same principles of forgiveness apply to you as they do to others. Until you get past your own failings, and move forward free from the anger, bitterness, or resentment you hold against yourself you will continue to suffer undue stress and distress within the depths of your soul. This will distract you, embitter you, cause irritability and make you far less effective in your leadership responsibilities than you should be.

For those of you determined to hold out and continue to begrudge bosses, friends, teammates, vendors, bankers, competitors or family, ponder the veracity of this insightful quote on the matter:

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back; in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”—Frederick Beuchner