Forgive or forget progress

6th September 2013 at 01:00

I used to work with a headteacher who constantly bemoaned the fact that the teachers at their school "wouldn't know what innovation was if they bumped into it in the street". The ironic thing was that this individual would harangue anyone who made the slightest mistake. Was it any wonder that people learned to keep their heads down?

Yet leaders are under immense pressure these days to deliver improved outcomes with fewer and fewer resources. The only solution is to find new ways of working. For innovation to take place, people need to operate within a culture where they have the confidence and necessary space to take risks; a culture of forgiveness.

The dictionary definition of forgiveness is: "To grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offence or debt." Forgiveness further relates to renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger due to a perceived (or actual) mistake.

This last notion is the most challenging for modern leaders, who are committed to creating a "mistake-free", "results-driven", "outcome-focused", "high-performing" environment.

If leaders make it clear, either explicitly or implicitly, that employees will not be forgiven if they make a mistake, then the outcome is quite the opposite from what is intended. Research suggests that if people feel they will not be forgiven for making mistakes, they tend to operate well within established boundaries.

In the modern workplace, with ever-reducing budgets, tighter staffing and greater scrutiny and public accountability, the pressure to closely manage employee performance has never been greater.

This leads many managers to behave in a way that diminishes both their employees and themselves: they become intolerant of mistakes. They forget the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi, who is said to have observed: "An eye for an eye ... ends up making the whole world blind."

Employees who are forgiven for mistakes and who work in a forgiving culture are much more likely to be creative and take appropriate risks. Forgiveness helps people to have a more positive outlook and to be much less likely to hide errors or transgressions.

Far from forgiveness being a sign of weakness or timidity in leaders, it is, in fact, a virtue and a real indication of fortitude and self-confidence. Never has it been more important for leaders to demonstrate forgiveness and to create the "space for innovation" that is a prerequisite for the kind of fundamental changes that are needed to address our current challenges successfully.

I'll leave the last words with Nelson Mandela, as portrayed in the film Invictus: "Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon."

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at personal development consultancy Drummond International.

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