OHS Canada Magazine

Practicing forgiveness fosters learning in the workplace

June 6, 2022
By Bill Howatt and Troy Winters
Health & Safety Human Resources Mental Health Psychologically Safe Leadership

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Psychologically Safe Leadership: Strategies for facilitating mental health in the workplace’ is a monthly series, in partnership with Dr. Bill Howatt of Howatt HR Consulting and Troy Winters of CUPE in Ottawa. This series takes on the best practices for work leaders to create a psychologically safe environment.

In his newest book, Think Again, Adam Grant points out the importance of accepting being wrong as an opportunity to learn and grow. Many have grown up in a culture that promotes the 100% scale: being right is better than wrong. Perhaps this is why many workers and leaders do not take risks nor speak up – they do not want to risk being wrong.

No one is perfect, and as the adage goes, “Mistakes happen,” how you react to a failure or a mistake as a leader impacts how your team works, as employees can become fearful of error or the mere likelihood of your learning about their future mistakes.

“Mistakes happen – allow space to learn from them.” –Dr. Bill Howatt

Recent CSA Standards publications regarding incident investigations have clarified the importance of considering the facts around each incident to determine what led to the error so that causal conditions can be corrected.


Mistakes: a learning curve

When mistakes are made, start with the premise that your team members try to do their work well. As covered in previous articles on fear-based workplace and its impact in productivity, there are two types of non-intentional errors: skill-based and rule-based. On the other hand, violation errors occur when people intentionally break a rule or do not follow a procedure. Most violations are not done with malice or hostile intent, workers are often just looking for a better – usually faster – way to accomplish work, or they are just reacting to new and unexpected situations.

However, regardless of the reason, some leaders react with anger when they observe a mistake, the purpose of which is to deal with a perceived threat and to signal that there is something wrong going on. The emotion is not the problem; it is the triggered behaviour. Leaders who react angrily to mistakes signal workers that mistakes are bad and can have negative consequences.

When you lose your cool and get caught up in anger, calm down, own your behaviour, and apologize. Why? Because your reaction to mistakes has a lasting impact on your team.

Nobody enjoys making mistakes, but mistakes are an important part of learning. When a worker makes an error, they will likely feel bad. They may feel they have lost the team’s trust and start to second-guess their work. However, they need to know that it is safe to make mistakes and the mistakes will be forgiven. Not learning from mistakes is not optional.

Supporting workers with forgiveness through mistakes and encouraging them to forgive themselves promotes personal growth. Such learning experiences help workers become less risk-averse and willing to leverage their creativity.

Responding with forgiveness

Forgiveness means turning negative feelings and responses to the mistake and related circumstances into neutral or positive emotions. Knowing why or how a mistake happened is a good step toward forgiveness. Don’t hold a grudge; trust the worker to continue to do their best.

Forgiving a mistake does not mean excusing or condoning a worker’s actions, nor does it mean there will be no consequences for a mistake, Regardless of the outcome, psychologically safe leaders allow workers, and their team to learn how to improve and move forward so the error is not made again.

“Forgiveness improves your mental health as a leader.” –Troy Winters, CRSP

Through the learning process systems and processes need to be changed, additional training may be required, or jobs may need to be modified. Forgiveness means that you no longer are dwelling on the incident and bringing up the failure in negative terms.

Like other micro-skills, forgiveness may be something that a person has to learn. Moving past a mistake is not a skill some have ever practiced, but research shows that forgiveness helps us experience better mental health.

In a study published in the Journal of Personality in 2005, researchers documented how forgiveness reduces distraction, vengeance, hostility, anger, anxiety, and depression. According to this research, people who practice forgiveness are less “beset by negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviours.” Those who don’t forgive are more likely to harbour resentments, blame others for issues they would otherwise be able to correct, and develop ill feelings and general bitterness that eventually lead to adverse physical effects.

A recent leadership development law enforcement bulletin from the FBI states, “The next time someone else makes a mistake and asks for your forgiveness, be willing to give it. Not only will you relieve the burden of guilt from that person, but you will experience the freedom of healing in yourself, which ultimately makes you a better leader.”

Learning to embrace forgiveness

The following recommendations for fostering a thriving forgiveness culture are modified from an excellent article from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

  • Acknowledge anger and resentment. Recognize that forgiveness does not occur quickly. Allow time for grieving, anger, and other negative emotions to be experienced and pass before reacting.
  • Clarify the target of forgiveness. Identify the human beings involved — offenders and anyone harmed. Remember that the target of forgiveness is people, not objects.
  • Provide opportunities for interaction and conversation. Forgiveness usually requires opportunities for verbal expressions, empathetic listening, and human support.
  • Demarcate the end of the hurtful or victim phase from the beginning of the healing and restoration phase. A symbolic event may be helpful, depending on the situation.
  • Provide and highlight avenues to help people move toward desired objectives.
  • Provide opportunities to develop and display positive affect, often by doing good and doing well. Find ways for victims to serve others. Allow people to practice giving.
  • Provide reinforcement and resources for activities that help members progress toward meaningful, instrumental objectives, including systematic learning from adverse events.
  • Foster an optimistic climate and a sense of hope.
  • Maintain leadership visibility and accessibility to those harmed and those who failed or erred to inspire confidence, clarify vision, and reinforce concern.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.


Troy Winters is a senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ottawa.


The Psychologically Safe Workplace Awards (PSWAs) are a national, evidence-based annual competition that measures the employee experience with respect to workplace mental health.


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