Forgive Me? Letting Go of Mistakes at Work

Instead of butting heads, forgive others!
Learn what makes it more likely that you'll forgive others - and be forgiven - at work!

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We know that people make mistakes at work. But, what predicts when we will forgive them for their transgressions? After mistakes are made, employees should forgive each another and rebuild relationships. It’s also important for you to feel that you’ve been forgiven when you make a mistake. Keep reading to learn how to forgive others or be forgiven at work!

What Does It Mean to Forgive?

Forgiveness is defined in a couple of different ways. As a response to another person’s action, forgiveness is a positive change in thoughts toward someone who has done something blameworthy. As a personality trait, some people have a higher likelihood of taking steps to forgive others when mistakes are made. Finally, forgiveness can be a value. In relationships, if you practice the value of forgiving, you are more likely to make amends more quickly. One thing is clear overall, though. When you forgive, you have more positive thoughts and less negative thoughts toward transgressors over time.

This is all important because forgiveness improves your mental and physical health. This is partially because hostile feelings decrease and also because positive feelings increase when you forgive others. If you forgive because you believe it’s the right thing to do (as opposed to feeling forced to do it), forgiveness is especially linked to wellbeing. As a result, figuring out how to forgive others is important for your wellness. You are more likely to forgive if you know how to reframe your thoughts and emotions after someone offends or harms you. But, how do you do that when you feel wronged?

At the core of being able to forgive, is having a strong relationship that matters to you.
At the core of being able to forgive, is having a strong relationship that matters to you.

You Forgive If You Understand What Happened

After someone makes a mistake, the victim tries to think through what happened. It’s natural to try to make sense of the situation and to try to understand why someone harmed you. Meta-analysis shows that people are more likely to forgive is if they think the mistake was unintentional. If you truly believe that someone’s actions were well-intentioned, you more easily forgive them. This is also related to how much you like that person and how strong your relationship was before the transgression occurred. If you’re unsure of someone’s intent, it helps to give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s much harder to forgive someone who intentionally hurt you or who you don’t like, but luckily, those instances are more rare.

The same meta-analysis from above showed that you’re more likely to forgive someone who tries to apologize to you. Apologies create a way for the offender to make things right. If an apology doesn’t happen, the situation continues to feel unjust, prompting revenge. This is even more true if you know that your organization won’t punish the person who wronged you. In other words, if you don’t think that the offender will face any negative consequences, you’re more likely to try to get even than to forgive.

This is important for you to know as well! If you make a mistake, telling people you’re sorry AND reassuring them that you didn’t mean any harm is key. When someone else has wronged you, give them the opportunity to apologize. If you give someone the cold shoulder, they may not feel comfortable bringing the situation back up.

Seeing things from someone else's perspective really helps you to be able to forgive them.
Seeing things from someone else’s perspective really helps you to be able to forgive them.

You Forgive If You Can Control Your Emotions

Emotions can run wild when someone wrongs you or makes a mistake. Being able to control specific emotions is helpful for putting yourself in the right frame of mind to forgive. Specifically, meta-analysis shows that being able to see things from others’ perspective helps. This is the emotional reaction of empathy. Showing empathy toward others who have wronged you, by imagining what it might be like to be in their situation and to feel what they are feeling, helps. If you can understand where someone else is coming from, you’re more likely to be able to forgive them for what they did. You are also more likely to take active steps to rebuild the relationship, which is crucial.

Anger is also an important component to forgiveness. The same meta-analysis showed that being able to calm down your anger in response to an offense helps you to forgive others. Anger sparks a lot of irrational actions and promotes revenge. If you can calm down your anger in the moment, you will be better able to eventually forgive an offense. A mindfulness practice or other centering practice might help with this. If you’re feeling angry, take a few minutes to focus on being present and sensing how you’re feeling. This might help you to take control of your anger and to channel that energy more positively.


Overall, it’s really important to forgive others and to rebuild relationships at work. We have talked about the importance of building strong relationships at work before. If you have consistent problems with the same person, of course, there may be a performance issue. But, in most circumstances, it may be important to forgive and move on.

But, remember, forgiving others is also healthier for you! In fact, when organizations grow cultures of forgiveness that make it more likely that all employees will forgive one another, this promotes health and wellbeing at the group level. Pretty awesome, huh?

Have you found it challenging to forgive others at work? What has helped you to be able to move forward after a transgression? Have you ever benefited from being forgiven? Leave your thoughts below!

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