The workplace, like almost all places where people interact, can be a petri dish of conflict. Offensive remarks, unrealistic demands, people taking credit for others’ work, bullying — the transgressions that occur can take many forms. They also have the potential to escalate out of control and permanently damage relationships.
Gabrielle Adams, an assistant professor at the London Business School and a visiting fellow at Harvard University, has examined the role that empathy and forgiveness can play in resolving these conflicts.
In recent studies, Adams found that misunderstandings often exist between the victims of harm and the people who committed the harm. In many cases, the transgressors did not intend a negative effect, whereas the victims tended to think that the damage was intentional. In addition, transgressors frequently felt guilty and wanted to be forgiven much more than their victims realized.
When someone feels wronged, it can help to actively empathize with the person who is perceived as the wrongdoer, according to a study that Adams conducted along with Ena Inesi, also of the London Business School. That can enable the victim to realize that the transgressor may well wish to be forgiven, their study found.
They came to these conclusions, in part, by having people record diaries, over a five-day period, of situations in which they thought they had harmed or offended other people, or been harmed by or offended by others. From these diaries, wide “miscalibrations” of other people’s perceptions became apparent, Adams said.
“We ask victims to think about what it would be like to be the transgressor, and you reduce that miscalibration,” she said.
She also conducted a lab experiment in which people could select from a set of assignments. One of the assignments — testing out various juice flavors — was much more enjoyable than a different one: going through a set of nonsense words and crossing out the letter E.
If given first choice of an assignment, people would almost always choose the fun juice test, which meant that the other participant was forced to take the tedious letter E assignment. As a result, the second person tended to be resentful of the first person — but the first people indicated that they hadn’t intended the harm and felt guilty about it.
This is typical of many workplace conflicts, Adams said. Think of bullying. Many people can cite instances in which they think they have been bullied. But how many people would say that they have bullied someone themselves?
In a conflict, the people involved almost always have a different interpretation of events, Adams said. This is partly because we have a built-in tendency as humans to think that we are good people, and also that we are right.
By making it a point to resolve conflicts by encouraging empathy and forgiveness, workers and managers can improve workplace conditions, Adams said.
But there is a dark side to forgiveness, she added. This is when the perceived transgressors do not think they have done anything wrong — in which case the person offering forgiveness is seen as self-righteous, in that way making the relationship even worse.
“Before you can even offer forgiveness, there needs to be some kind of mutual understanding of the transgression,” Adams said.
If that can be achieved, then forgiveness can help both parties move forward, she said.
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