The Power of Forgiveness at Work - Loren Toussaint

Workplace relationships can shape your job experience for the better or for the worse, when interpersonal hurts or offenses occur at work, they can negatively impact your job performance. On the other hand, research shows that forgiveness may positively impact your experience of the workplace and the people around you. Guest Dr. Loren Toussaint is a Professor of Psychology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He directs the laboratory for the investigation of mind, body and spirit, that studies virtues, especially forgiveness and their relationship to health and well-being. He is the Chair of the Discover Forgiveness Advisory Council for the Templeton World Charity Foundation, President of The Forgiveness Foundation, Associate Director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project, and a consultant to Mayo Clinic Cancer Treatment Centers of America and Boise State University. He encourages everyday forgiveness to build resilience and to minimize stress in families, schools, healthcare, workplaces and communities.

Scripture References

  • Matthew 6:14-15
  • Matthew 12:43-45

Additional Resources

The Forgiveness Foundation

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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

Leah Archibald: Workplace relationships can shape your job experience for the better or for the worse, when interpersonal hurts or offenses occur at work, they can negatively impact your job performance. On the other hand, research shows that forgiveness may positively impact your experience of the workplace and the people around you.

Our guest today, Dr. Loren Toussaint is a Professor of Psychology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He directs the laboratory for the investigation of mind, body and spirit, that studies virtues, especially forgiveness and their relationship to health and well-being. He is the Chair of the Discover Forgiveness Advisory Council for the Templeton World Charity Foundation, President of The Forgiveness Foundation, Associate Director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project, and a consultant to Mayo Clinic Cancer Treatment Centers of America and Boise State University. He encourages everyday forgiveness to build resilience and to minimize stress in families, schools, healthcare, workplaces and communities. Loren Toussaint welcome to the podcast.

Loren Toussaint: Thanks for having me.

LA: So let's start at the beginning. What led you to research forgiveness in the workplace?

LT: That's a really good question. I was born and raised as a Christian and I did all of my college training and then all of my graduate training. And I think I was really motivated by just my sense of my Christian calling and the vocation that I felt I needed to follow. I really badly wanted to integrate what I had learned as a psychologist and a scientist with my faith. And that led me to doing that very impactful research fellowship.

As they say, the rest is history. I got interested in forgiveness and I just can't stop. The question of the workplace really became interesting to me, because I'm also trained as what is called a health psychologist. So we're really interested in how the psychological world impacts our physical and mental health and well-being, and there's a lot of research on just how important the workplace is in those capacities.

People that have just bad experiences at work they tend to experience a lot of stress and conflict and anger and frustration. And that shows up in their mental health and their physical health. And we spend, especially in the United States, we spend so much time at work, and even when we're not at work, we spend so much time at work. And even when we're on vacation, we spend so much time at work, that it became clear to me that maybe outside of your immediate family and your immediate friends, the workplace is that part of life that is probably gonna have more impact on you than anything else. And unfortunately, the workplace isn't always an affirming, loving, compassionate, forgiving place. And in fact, if you talk to most people who are working, it doesn't take you along in the conversation to find out what they're really and who they're really displeased with. And so that's what kind of led me to this question of, does forgiveness have an appropriate place in our work, in our workplaces or in our organizations, the places where we make our living. So that's what brought me here.

LA: Now the next question I'm gonna ask you, Loren, is about the benefits of forgiveness in the workplace. And I know you're gonna give me or I hope you're gonna give me some scientific answer from your experience, but before I do that, I wanna ask, Mark, your opinion. Because you're coming at this from another angle, not necessarily as a researcher, but as a pastor or someone who's had a lot of direct interpersonal experience in forgiveness and coaching people through forgiveness. So before Loren gives his scientific answer, Mark, I wonder if you could come in here with a personal experience vignette or prediction about what Loren is gonna say about the benefits of forgiveness in the workplace.

Mark Roberts: Sure, sure. Well, first of all, I just have to say that when I was doing my homework getting ready for this podcast Loren, I just thought, "Oh my gosh, this stuff is so important and so needed, for all kinds of reasons." And one of those, and maybe in this conversation, we'll talk about some misunderstandings people have about what forgiveness is that keep them from forgiving. So anyway, as a pastor, forgiveness is one of the biggest challenges, needs, realities in life, in all relationships.

And I had many opportunities to sit and pray with people who had been wronged by a colleague or a boss. And then I'll just say from my own experience now just as a worker. And there is no question in my mind that the workplace has been the place where I have most had to practice forgiveness in my life. To be sure some of that has been in my family. But if you just simply added up the number of difficult instances in which I needed to forgive in work and in family, it would probably be 10:1 work.

One of the things that is true for so many Christians is they say, "Sure, forgiveness is really important, I need to forgive in my family, my friends, my personal life." But they sort of think work is a different thing, and then that doesn't get lived out in the place where arguably we might most need it, or at least certainly need it. So, yeah, so I'm pumped up about this.

LA: Alright, so tell us, Loren, about the benefits of forgiveness in the workplace.

LT: The benefits of forgiveness in general, whether it be home, family, community, workplace, wherever, they're well-documented and they're considerable. And the thing that I would say is, the workplace is no different than any other place in terms of the benefits of forgiveness. There are some I suppose, unique aspects that we'll I'm sure hit on here. But generally speaking, better mental health, notably better mental health, much lower depression, much lower anxiety, fewer symptoms of feeling traumatized, higher levels of happiness, more positive mood, more optimism. More ability to just express and appreciate moments of joy and improved ability to feel gratitude, to feel hopeful about your future and the direction you're going.

All of these things amount to what a lot of people now are calling flourishing. People who are in a place where they're just able to really grow and develop in ways that are really exceptionally well-supported. And they feel like they're really getting the most out of life. And that is the number one benefit of forgiveness, is that mental health and happiness. That sort of thing is undeniably a benefit of forgiveness.

What we also know, however, is that forgiveness is related to better physical health, and so things as simple as your day-to-day headaches, tensions, muscle aches. Those kinds of symptoms of someone who may not be diagnosed with a terrible chronic illness or disease, but things that affect us all as we're maybe doing our daily commute or we're riding the train somewhere or walking home from work, whatever. And you're trying to figure out why your head hurts so bad, forgiveness seems to ameliorate some of those, what we would just kind of call, somatic signs of distress that you're really struggling physically with the burdens.

But in addition to that, bigger things like heart disease, high blood pressure, indications that there's problems with cardiovascular health, things like chronic pain all of these things seem to have some level of benefit. It's usually not quite as strong as it is for the mental health benefit, but there are a number of physical health benefits of forgiving and perhaps the thing that is more maybe impressive or the clincher here, so to speak, is that people who are more forgiving tend to live longer than those who are not, and usually that's pretty good evidence of someone who's in better health. Obviously, you can die because of an accident or something that has nothing to do with your health, but oftentimes people die because their health has gone in a very bad way. So yeah, there's tremendous benefits.

LA: So all those benefits sound good, but I think I'm gonna have to ask you for a practical example because if it was easy to get all those benefits, we would be getting them. But forgiveness in the workplace is difficult, I can see if someone made a mistake, they took my stapler or it was an accident, and then I forgave them. But sometimes when you're at work someone is trying to steal your promotion out from under you, or someone is trying to undermine me and take the job that I want, or sometimes people are really malicious. Can you give a real-life example of something you have to forgive in the workplace?

LT: Oh, absolutely. All of those things that you mentioned are good examples. I will lead from your mention of the idea of a promotion. And in my own experience, I reached a point in my career where... In academic life, there's not the idea of an annual kind of promotion or raise or whatever, it's more of a rite of passage that you go through. And there's a couple of opportunities where you can move from being what's known as an assistant professor and then maybe to an associate and then to a full professor and so forth. And these moments of promotion come along about maybe twice in the career of your typical college professor and so when you're faced with these moments, it's really a career-defining moment. If someone working in Corporate America is not promoted they might come back up for promotion the very next year or maybe six months later, or whatever the case might be. In the academic world, if you don't make it, it can be the kiss of death. In some instances, people are now looking for a different job, they're gonna relocate their families, so it's a really significant moment.

And in my own experience I ran into one of these moments in which one of the people evaluating my promotion package disagreed that I was ready for a promotion. And this was despite the fact that everyone else at this point must have been the sum total of maybe, let's say half a dozen or a dozen more sets of eyeballs had been on my promotion materials, and everyone agreed that I was ready. And this one person in a particularly powerful position, didn't really like my approach to doing the work that I was doing and disagreed, and that was really hard. So my promotion at that point was in jeopardy and it remained that way for, I'm gonna say probably a month and a half. And ultimately I appealed the decision to higher levels and was granted the promotion.

But in that time, that would have been the single most egregious offense that I had experienced in the workplace. I just could not comprehend how this could be happening. And the interesting thing about promotions, I guess, is that so often there are... There are objective metrics, but then there's always some level of subjective input. And so it really felt like a personal attack. It wasn't that I didn't meet the certain criteria. I had clearly met those criteria, and everyone else agreed that I had. It felt like a personal attack on my approach to doing this work. And that was incredibly difficult to forgive. And I knew right away that this was something I was going to have to ultimately take my own medicine on.

I knew there was going to have to be some way that I was going to find it in my heart to forgive this individual. And I recognized that almost instantly when I got the information that the promotion was denied. And yet I knew it was going to take a long time before I could get to that point of feeling that I could forgive that person. So yeah, I completely agree. These are incredibly difficult things to contend with. And I certainly don't want to suggest that everyone can do it or even that everyone should do it. It's a personal choice. We say that often about forgiveness. It's a personal choice. It's typically not an easy thing to do. People have to really work at it.

LA: So lead us through how you would do that. 'Cause I was hanging in with that story and there was not any part of the story where I was like, "Now let me turn to my three-step criteria for forgiveness." I was just mad with you this whole time. So where do you start with forgiveness?

MR: Leah, can I ask?

LA: Yeah, absolutely.

MR: Before that, Loren, I know that in your work, you've defined forgiveness in very elegant and simple ways. Maybe say what that is too, because my guess is some folks are thinking, well, you shouldn't say that was okay, or there are other misunderstandings. So could you say what forgiveness is? And then Leah's question, what will help you move in the direction of forgiving?

LT: Yeah, that's great. Thank you for that additional clarification because, in the simplest terms that I can put it in, forgiveness is getting rid of hatred and moving to a position of love. That's as simple as I can put it. And I knew when I read this, my message came in a letter, when I read these words, my heart just constricted with an icy cold hatred for this person, instant response. I just couldn't inhibit it in any way, much as I might want to. I was immediately filled with hatred. All kinds of imagined ways of getting my just and delicious revenge were filling my mind. And really unproductive things for the workplace. I was saying things like, well, I should just shutter my lab, take the nameplate off the door, and lock it, and never go back in. Eliminate all the students that are learning some things about forgiveness, and spirituality, and health, and wholeness, and well-being. Eliminate them all from my life, and my professional life. And just pretty much come here, punch the clock, teach my required classes, do whatever else is required, and then move on with my life.

It was really a hate-filled response. Just anything I could do to get back and to gain revenge, I would have delighted in that. Now, we're talking about years that have transpired since. And that's the thing that often, I think, is hard to realize is, forgiveness is just one of those things that you might want to be able to kind of expedite it. And so I get the urgency with which you want to ask the question, like, "How do I do this? How do I do this better? And there is some of that. There are some things, and I'll mention them here in just a second, but I want to start by saying it's not an easy prescription to give. It's not something that just happens. And I don't know that it's like a recipe card that you can just follow and be guaranteed of benefits.

That said, there are some methods that are out there that make it more likely, they nudge you in the direction. But it's like somebody saying, "Well, I'd really like to be able to shoot 10 free throws and make 9 baskets. I'd like a 90% free throw shooting average." The first couple of times you go out there to do it, you're probably going to make like 1 out of 10, 2 out of 10, unless you're a professional basketball player, of course. But I mean, it's really hard to start at such a low level, and then to have to work progressively to improve. A lot of the way that we think about forgiveness is, it's not something that we can just prescribe that, here's how you do it, here's how it happens, you can accelerate it in these ways. But rather, there's exercises, approaches, ways of thinking.

And so let me tell you, one model that I've been really fond of over my career is that of a colleague of mine, Everett Worthington, and you can go to his website and get all the material, but I'll try to just summarize it briefly here. If you use the REACH method of forgiveness, it starts with a genuine understanding of what you've been hurt by. And so all of those very natural emotions that I was feeling, I don't really have to feel bad about that because it's natural. It's a natural reaction. Anger and hatred is a fairly natural reaction to injustice. And that's what I believed I had experienced was a horrible injustice. But the important part is that you don't get stuck there because that's easy to do. It's easy to keep telling that story and reminding everyone of just how horrible the person that you had to deal with is. Especially in the workplace, you oftentimes have colleagues and friends that come by and almost commiserate, or they kind of co-ruminate with you about all of the terrible things that happen.

But more importantly is that once you recognize what it is that you're really, truly offended by the person who hurt you, the very first key step is to empathize with them. And that is a really hard pill to swallow. And that's simply because empathy is easy to do when we're thinking about... Empathy is the ability to feel and to think from another person's perspective. And you can sometimes think like you can empathize with the President of the United States, maybe, even though it's hard to imagine what their life might be like. You might be able to think about, like, "Oh, wow, it would be interesting." It's almost kind of a fun exercise. You're thinking about somebody who's hurt you, and to empathize with them is really not a pleasant thing to do. We don't want to do that.

I generally would suggest that when you're hurt by somebody, you don't want to empathize with them, you want to destroy them, you want to demonize them. They're horrible people, that's why this happened. So empathy is key. And in terms of my example, I had to sit down and it took me... I bike to work, kind of the typical professor's mode of transportation. And so I bike back and forth to campus each day and it took me lots of bike rides. I really like biking because it gives me time to think. And it took me a lot of bike rides back and forth to campus to really come to some of the understanding of what my supervisor, my boss was faced with. They were thinking about lots of different things, understanding the context of the college and understanding where my performance was compared to where others was, the history, the tradition.

As I started to think about like, what must they have been thinking? And I took that question seriously. And then on top of that, I asked the question, what must they have been feeling? It occurred to me, they probably weren't acting out of spite or mean intent. They were just trying to do the role of a typical supervisor or a boss, which is to distance themselves from the people that they supervise so that they don't become colored in their perceptions of their supervisees. And that started to really help me. I realized it's probably not the case that there's reason for me to be horribly upset with this particular individual. It might be something that's kind of institutional. So that's part of the empathy process.

The next process is thinking about offering the gift of forgiveness, because oftentimes people get hung up in thinking, okay, well, maybe I can understand why this happened, but if they would just apologize, and that's not what a supervisor or a co-worker is going to do. They're usually going to feel like they were justified in doing what they did. And so if you're hung up on waiting for them to apologize or in some way make amends, that day's probably never going to come. And it hasn't for me, and I don't anticipate that it ever will, because the person that hurt me doesn't view themselves as having done anything wrong. So we have to view forgiveness as the process of offering what we might see as an undeserved gift. And that imagery comes right out of the Christian tradition. If any of us believe that we are somehow deserving of God's forgiveness, we are badly mistaken. We don't deserve any of the gifts that we're given, we just happen to be able to enjoy them. And so that's a hard thing to think about, is the idea that forgiveness is something that's given freely. It is an altruistic gift. And so that's a hard thing to comprehend for a lot of people.

And then the last couple of pieces of the forgiveness model is simply understanding that, as I said earlier, it's a long process. Sometimes it's a lifelong process. And just like if you learn to shoot those baskets and you get really good at it, and then you take some time away from the basketball court, what do you think is going to happen? You're not going to be as good as you used to be. You get rusty at it, things happen, you're not quite as sharp as you used to be. And the same thing happens with forgiveness is that sometimes you forget a little bit about why you wanted to forgive in the first place, how good it felt to do it and then you realize, hey, that person really did hurt me deeply. And so it's not uncommon for people to have a little bit of a slippage, a little bit of just falling back into unforgiving ways. And that's very natural. The point is not to say "I have forgiven someone and I will never hate them again." The point is to say "I'm going to try to live my life as a forgiving person and not hate this person as much as I possibly can. Live a life that is a loving life, a compassionate life, a giving life." And so that's the key. The last couple of steps of that process engage the notion of maintenance, holding on to forgiveness that has been hard-earned. And like I said, in my own experience, that's not an easy thing to do. It's a hard thing to do. And yet that's what we're called to do.

LA: There's something very biblical in the way that you explained forgiveness, even though there are no necessarily scriptural references that you put into your explanation of the steps of forgiveness. But when you were talking about the give and take of the empathy step, when you were talking about trying to put yourself in the other person's shoes, it brought to mind this passage from Matthew chapter 6, which is immediately memorable for forgiveness. When people think of where is forgiveness in the Bible, when Jesus says, if you forgive other people when they sin against you, God will also forgive you. But if you don't forgive other people when they sin against you, then God is not gonna forgive you. It's a little bit harsh. It's a harsh message in the middle of Jesus's great teachings. But there is something very evidence-based, as you say, in the give-and-take nature of empathy there.

LT: Yeah, yeah, and from my faith perspective, forgiveness is not, it's really not optional. And that's a really hard message to hear for a lot of people. And I take that right from the scripture, as you have so aptly pointed out, this is not my view on forgiveness, this is our Lord's view on forgiveness. That essentially, if you expect to be forgiven, you must forgive, it's not optional. And yet there are a couple of things that people oftentimes get confused here. And so I want to make sure to draw a clear distinction in terms of defining forgiveness, which is something we said earlier. I said it's losing the hatred and filling it back up with love. But it is also important to distinguish it from a couple of other commonly confused notions. And the first one is what we generally call reconciliation. And certainly, there is a kind of a divine forgiveness and reconciliation that is not easily paralleled in our own finite lives.

And so what I'm saying here is that even though I have completely forgiven on most days, on my good days, I feel like I've completely forgiven people that have done me wrong at work, I don't seek out their friendship. I'm not attempting to make a really good relationship with these people. I'm not really interested in doing that. And reconciliation is just that. Reconciliation is rebuilding social relationships and bonds between others. And we typically draw a very hard line in the sand between forgiveness from the heart, forgiveness being something that you really express at every level of your being, your spiritual heart has been unburdened. You don't hold ill will or tendencies towards revenge or hatred toward this person. But the ability to also maintain boundaries and to say, this is not a good place for me to spend my time, this is not a good person for me to engage in on a professional level with, I think that's fine.

To distinguish those two things is very important, especially if you have co-workers or supervisors who you maybe think are intentionally trying to sabotage your work or your success. That to forgive them is kind of a personal, what we might call intra-psychic or spiritual experience. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to rebuild relationships with them. And the second thing is that some things, they're not just, they're not fair, and they never will be, and there may not ever be anything that can be done to make them fair or just again. And that does not prohibit forgiveness. In other words, forgiveness is not the alternative to justice. I would say forgiveness and justice run on parallel train tracks. And sometimes you might get a little further ahead on justice, and you may be a little bit further behind on forgiveness. Those are times that people hurt you, and then they do make it right, but the very act that they hurt you in some way is something you just can't seem to get over. I would say then you need to work more on forgiveness.

Sometimes people hurt us, we're able to forgive them. Oftentimes these are like maybe close family or close friends, even though there's really never any good justice that has been done. It's the case that these two things operate largely independently. It doesn't mean that they can't come together. Certainly, I have had instances where I've gotten justice and I also have been able to forgive. They can happen together, but they don't always. Sometimes you get one but not the other. And so I certainly don't want to suggest that because you have forgiven, it means that you have to forego justice. That's not true. Forgiveness is something that's happening within you, as I like to say, is coming from the heart in a deeply spiritual and almost psychospiritual way. But that does not always mean that you can't do other things socially, that you can't do other things in a legalistic or justice-based way as well.

LA: I love this distinction between forgiveness and justice, and even between the feeling of forgiveness and the active action of forgiveness. Mark, I wanna ask your thoughts from your experience on the different ways that we define forgiveness, and then what does that mean for our actions?

MR: Well, partly, Loren, as you were speaking, I was thinking, New Testament is my field, and I expect... You know what I'm about to say. But partly your whole notion of forgiveness is sending something away, giving something away, taking the hurt and pain and giving it away. You're really just exegeting one of the major New Testament words for forgiveness, aphiemi, which simply means literally to send away. So it is taking this hurt and this bitterness and anger and wrong, and it's not holding on, but it's sending it away and giving it to the Lord if you will. And that's such an important part of forgiveness. But then you also talked about the grace part, and the other major word group in the New Testament for forgiveness, the verbier charidzomai related to charis or grace, that there is this being gracious to.

And so really what you're doing in a scientific, in a psychological way, is unpacking some of that core biblical truth. But I will say the thing I love that you've added, which I think is in scripture, but you're making it clear, is that forgiveness is not only sending away the hurt and then you just got emptiness that it's actually filling that with love, which is, one could say it's really an implication of the grace being given, and that's a newer take, I haven't heard that. I actually think that's really wonderful. And then if you're sitting there and you're... And the other thing I just gotta say, I so appreciate the fact that you've said. This takes time.

I think a lot of Christians think, "Okay, I need to forgive. Okay, God, I forgive this person who wronged me." But they don't really sense it or feel it, and then they feel like, "Oh, I'm a lousy forgiver, maybe I'm even a sinner, I can't... " And so thank you for saying the psychic and the soul part takes time. I also think in personal relationships, and then of course, within more broadly in our culture, and our country, that the confusion of forgiveness and justice is sometimes a real problem. And so then we think, well, if I want justice for a wrong that's been done, I can't forgive. And so then I hold on to this anger and bitterness, and I fear that that's really the dominant ethos of our culture today, and so I will cancel you and I will hang on to my bitterness forever, which as you've said earlier, well, not only is that not acknowledging what Christ asks us to do, but it's also really bad for me to do that.

LT: Yeah, I think the only quick forgiveness is someone else's. That when I'm faced with the challenge of having to forgive, I can point out all the obstacles and the roadblocks and the hurdles I'm gonna have to get over to be able to make this thing happen. But when I look at your situation and you need to forgive someone, yeah, that should probably only take you a week. The only fast forgiveness is when someone else is doing it or having to do it, so I completely agree and I also...

You'll have to help me here with the chapter and verse, I don't remember what this one comes from, but Jesus tells a story about the sweeping clean of these demons, and then later only to find that demons even worse have taken up the emptiness. And I think that is really the crux of it is, if you sweep out, you cleanse out, let's just call it unforgiveness, hatred, anger, frustration, motivations towards revenge and feelings of resentment. If you're able to sweep those things clean and you just leave the door open, if you're not intentional about what you fill that space with, what do you think your natural tendency is going to be, what are you gonna naturally drift back toward? It's probably gonna be not so great. I think about some of my own experiences. The most potent reminders are bad ones. So I need to really actively work to maintain that kind of loving approach and attitude toward those who have hurt me, or it's really easy to slip back into hating them.

MR: So true. Loren, I just need to say one of the things I appreciate about you, I, of course, prepared for this time, read some of your stuff, you're a scholar, this is your area of expertise. Thank you for also being so personal and open in this conversation. So you're bringing in a popular way some extraordinary work you've done for many years, and at the same time, you're helping us connect to it through your own story and that's really helpful.

LT: Well, thank you for offering the opportunity. It's something that I've always really wanted to do is not just to study this, but to make it accessible to people who aren't studying it and to share the good news that I learn about with others, that's the whole aim of what we do here, so, yeah, thanks.

LA: Though Loren, you mentioned Matthew Chapter 12. This is in verses 43 to 45, where Jesus talks about an evil spirit gets swept out of a person, but there's gotta be some clean stuff to go back in. So we're gonna offer in our show notes some links to your further materials so people can read up on how to make forgiveness more of a lifestyle and less of a one-and-done. Loren Toussaint thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us on the podcast today.

MR: Yes, indeed.

LT: Happy to do it. Thanks for the opportunity. It's been a wonderful conversation and a great time to share, so thank you.

LA: Thank you.

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