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Passion, People and Principles

The Forgiveness Index

post # 124 — July 4, 2006 — a Managing post

There are organizations and managers out there who will tell you that they want you to experiment, but if you ever mess up, you are tarred with an indelible black mark on your reputation. Other organizations and people are so loose with their standards that they never get around to following-up if people fail to meet them. From this simple idea, I have developed what I call my “forgiveness index.”

A forgiveness index of 0 means that if you drop the ball once, the person or the organization will label you for life. You might just as well quit now, because you’re on your way out. The blade might not fall immediately, but the decision to drop it has been made.

Few people would want to live in an organization (or deal with individual people) this tough-minded, though I know a few institutions and people that operate this way. Some even pride themselves on so doing, on the grounds that as elite organizations, they need to test people in action and cannot afford to carry those who can’t make it.

Lets call people and organizations that have absolutely no forgiveness “The Warriors.”

At the opposite extreme, a forgiveness index of 100 means that you can break an organization’s (or person’s) declared standards for a very long time, and there really won’t be any adverse consequences. They are infinitely forgiving

This option also looks unattractive. An organization that has rules but never deals with departures from them is wasting their time, and an individual who preached a lot of things but ALWAYS forgave himself, herself or others clearly did not live them would lose a lot of respect immediately (not to mention being very annoying and frustrating to be around.)

Let’s call these people “The Infinitely Understanding”

BTW, I’m not making arguments here about valuing different aspects of performance, but how things are dealt with when an honest-to-goodness mistake or failure has occurred.

I’ve experienced both, personally and professionally, and have been on the receiving end of both high and low forgiveness.

As a manager and as a buyer, I’ve probably also been guilty of both GIVING too much and too little forgiveness.

It should be fairly clear that the ideal is to be somewhere in the middle, although it’s not clear which way the balance should be tilted.

I have a theory that super-successful organizations have a forgiveness index that is lower than average, but still well above 0 ( a level which would suppress innovation and experimentation.)

Anyone out there got any views on the right amount of forgiveness, and how you know when you have found it?


James Cherkoff said:

I think organisations with a Warrior approach end up generating lots of positioning and politics as people strive to find a way forward without appearing to make any mistakes at all. That can create a quite paranoid environment when people are constantly checking their ‘positions’. People that do well in those scenarios tend to be ‘reed-like’ – bending to and fro with the currents without having any real views of their own.

posted on July 5, 2006

Bruce MacEwen said:

Coincidentally, Business Week’s current issue has a cover story (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_28/b3992001.htm) talking about “learning through failure” and organizations that do and do not “permit” failure.

Obviously, you’re right that neither extreme is desirable, but two snippets from the BW article struck me as worth pondering: First, IBM apparently rewards its engineers on both one-year (bonus) and three-year (salary, title) time-frames, trying to inculcate a longer-term approach. Second, the difficulty of striking the right balance was nicely captured by the observation that it’s very hard to balance “a culture of performance with a culture of learning.”

But that, I think, is what you’re aiming for.

posted on July 5, 2006

ann michael said:

I think the index would be applied in different ways within the same company as well. On the operational side, it would be toward the middle but closer to warrior. In R&D or Strategic Marketing or Product Development it might be toward the middle but lean more towards understanding. I would also think that it would be a function of the industry. If you’re working with emerging markets – you may have to be more understanding then when you’re in a more mature market? Interesting concept to think about – since risk taking is core to innovation.

posted on July 5, 2006

Jennifer Davis said:

This is a tough one to strike a balance with. Mistakes made by employees is tuition paid, if the focus is on learning from mistakes and applying that learning as broadly as possible. Making the same mistake twice is the worst possible scenario. I have seen organizations celebrate failures by having the person tell the story to others to share the learning and avoid future mistakes.

However, a culture of forgiveness can be strained when you are in a results-oriented environment. In my experience, the key to maximizing the forgiveness factor is really in keeping the decisions small and fast. I

f all of the decisions are “make or break the company”, you can’t afford much forgiveness. If you remain a nimble organization that tests ideas, prototypes product offerings, and phases investment, then learning from mistakes because palatable. In fact, it is even preferred because the focus becomes finding out what works (sometimes by processes of elimination).

posted on July 5, 2006

Bill Peper said:

Just getting back to the blog after a fabulous week of training—we call them Facilitator Leaning Experiences—and a long holiday weekend.

I agree that super-successful businesses would have a forgiveness index lower than normal for mistakes. In part this likely is due to the diligence of management in monitoring the activities of the employees. These firms also would be less likely to classify a failed attempt as a mistake that would tarnish one’s career. If misconduct or incompetence caused the mistake, the successful business likely would fire the employee quicker than a mediocre business.

In determining the residual effect of a mistake, several factors need to be considered including:

· The seriousness of the matter;

· Whether a failure to discipline would send the wrong message to the other employees;

· Whether the mistake lessens the manager’s trust in the employee going forward;

· Whether the incident reflects poor judgment;

· Whether the employee should have known that the action should have been discussed with the supervisor in advance;

· Whether mitigating factors exist;

· Whether the organization’s policy was clear on this topic and the employee should have known the policy;

· Whether this was a repeat offense;

· Whether there were factors beyond the employee’s control that caused the poor result.

Essentially it comes down to a question of whether it is fair to taint the employee’s reputation given all of the factors. If the employee is to be retained, the firm should give that employee the opportunity to transform and rehabilitate that stain on his/her reputation. Holding grudges is natural but hardly a progressive activity.

posted on July 5, 2006

Hugh Alley said:

Is there something to learn from the another context? In the two religious traditions I’m familiar with (Judaism and Christianity) forgiveness is one side of a coin. The other is repentence. If someone recognizes they made a mistake and are troubled by it – truly don’t want to make it again – then you can let it go – forgive it.

At its core, the issue is less one of whether the organization is willing to “forgive” as it is one of whether the organization can recognize when someone regrets what they have done and then with that individual, figure out whether the error was because they didn’t know what was wanted, didn’t have the skill, couldn’t or didn’t care. The first two can be fixed. The third probably means that the person is in the wrong job. The last one – typical of the person who repeatedly makes the same mistake without any indication of regret – is a situation where you don’t want the person around anyway.

Perhaps the “warrior” firms exhibit a fundamental (and I would argue, erroneous) belief that 1) “they should know what to do anyway” and 2) a very pessimistic belief about people’s ability to learn (“if you don’t know it already, you can’t learn it.”) If this is so, then the issue is more about whether the organization (manager) is capable of making these subtle distinctions or even whether it encourages and supports those distinctions than whether it can “forgive mistakes.”

posted on July 5, 2006

Lex McCafferty said:

I’d suggest that it might be useful, instead of thinking in what I call Goldilocks terms (too hard, too soft, just right), to think in Seesaw/Balance terms – given that there is a certain level of forgiveness in an organisation, what other quality or qualities are needed to balance that? Sometimes the indirect approach, i.e. not working directly on forgiveness but on something else related, is the most effective. The level of ALL qualities might change, hopefully in the direction wanted.

posted on July 5, 2006

David (Maister) said:

These are very helpful thoughts. The reference to religion made me think of the Christian injunction to “hate the sin but love the sinner”, a managerial style that I try to follow but don’t always find it easy to pull off. Somehow, people insist on taking it personally when i criticize the sin.

I also like the modern phrase, similar to Hugh’s point “No-one will be blamed for a mistake, but no-one will be forgiven for failing to learn from that mistake.”

I think I get some of the principles here, but I’m not confident that I (or many of my clients) really pull it off well. I’d love to take he helpful adcvice to the next, detailed level.

posted on July 6, 2006

Starbucker said:

David, forgiveness (and how and when it is applied) something I don’t give a lot of thought to as a manager, but after reading your post (and the excellent comments) I realize what a delicate balance has to be maintained to keep from falling to one side or the other of your “index”. I like the “seesaw” analogy because at any given time, depending on the situation and the person (as Bill Peper outlined), you can be on one side or the other, but invariably you need to come back to the middle. Or, to put it in mathematical terms, always regressing back to the mean of an even-handed approach. I too wonder if this balance is really pulled off in most cases, so I’d be most interested in the “next level” of advice (when you get there). Thanks.

posted on July 8, 2006

Peter Weldon said:

One should never forgive or forget but remember and understand. The same with an employee except you should ask the employee why. Do not accept “I do not know”

Countless tragedies repeat themsleves – some for hundreds of years – due to the failure of not endeavoring to understand by asking them or yourself why?

Mankind has suffered severly by refusing to ask why.

posted on March 18, 2007