Faculty & Research
Faculty & Research
All's forgiven, or is it? Expressing forgiveness after interpersonal mistreatment
By Michelle Xue Zheng and Marius van Dijke
In any organisational setting, interpersonal mistreatment (ranging from mild social slights to serious harassment) is a daily possibility, damaging victims while also damaging the relationship between the victims and transgressors. Whenever it occurs, one way to restore these relationships is through the expression of forgiveness by the victim. While some studies suggest that forgiveness encourages transgressors to make amends and stop further transgressions, however, others have found that forgiveness makes transgressors avoid the victim, or even carry out further mistreatment.
It is clear from existing studies that forgiveness doesn’t occur in a social vacuum and its effectiveness largely depends on organisational contexts such as hierarchy. To better understand exactly how and when expressing forgiveness will be more (vs less) effective in relationship restoration efforts, it is necessary to understand the moderating influence of such hierarchies. A recent study we conducted is the first to provide empirical evidence that a forgiver’s power and status have a tangible impact on how likely the transgressor is to believe in the sincerity of their victim’s forgiveness. Our main finding was that transgressors are less likely to believe that a high power (vs low) victim’s forgiveness is sincere, making them less willing to restore the relationship. Additionally, we found that this effect is more pronounced if the victim is regarded as having low (vs high) status.
In this context, we define power as having the capacity to impose one’s will on others, and define status as the respect, admiration, and regard an individual has in the eyes of others. So, a victim high in power but low in status might be a security guard or a reimbursement clerk. Contrastingly, a low-power but high-status victim might be a well-liked and trusted employee in a junior position with no direct influence over others.
Our findings were reached though two lab experiments and two field studies conducted with a total of 558 participants. Participants were drawn from a variety of organisations and were a mix of European undergraduate business students and US company employees with varying levels of education and professional seniority. Our studies involved a series of trust games designed to simulate trust violations carried out by participants against individuals that they were told were in positions of high/low power, and who held high/low status within the organisation. These “victims” would then forgive the “transgressors,” to see if this had any effect on their actions when the trust game was rerun. By using critical incident techniques, we conducted two field studies among employees in which we asked them to describe their experiences of having enacted interpersonal mistreatment and measured their restorative behaviours afterwards.
Our findings deliver the valuable practical implication that the power and status of a forgiver will “colour” their transgressor’s perceptions around forgiveness sincerity. This implies that no matter how sincere the forgiver really is, their power and status will either help or hinder their efforts to repair the relationship with the transgressor. Even though previous studies show that high-power actors are more likely to act according to their sincere intentions, our findings show that low-power transgressors are more likely to view them as insincere.
This is an ironic form of disconnect that affects both transgressors and victims, one that should be taken into account when planning any relationship restoration efforts. In terms of practical considerations, transgressors should be explicitly told of their potential bias against high-power actors, as previous studies show that this simple act of making them aware of said biases can in fact minimise them. As for high-power victims, they should strive to achieve a perception of high status in their organisation, to boost their perceived sincerity, and subsequently their effectiveness in restoring relationships with transgressors. While there are many ways to achieve higher status (many of them dependent on the cultural and professional norms that apply to the individual actor), in this context a valid strategy is to exhibit actions that benefit the wider organisation and its members, such as ensuring that all decisions and interpersonal treatment are perceived as fair.
This article is based on a paper entitled “Expressing forgiveness after interpersonal mistreatment: Power and status of forgivers influence transgressors’ relationship restoration efforts” published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour here.
Michelle Xue Zheng is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at CEIBS. For more on her teaching and research interests, please visit her faculty profile here. Marius van Dijke is a Full Professor in Behavioural Ethics at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University and Nottingham Business School.