Forgiveness Education in the Workplace: A New Strategy for the Management of Anger
Ke Zhaoα, Robert Enrightσ & John Klattρ
Anger in the workplace can present considerable challenges to human resource personnel. This study compared the effects of a forgiveness education program to a relaxation training program in the workplace for reducing anger and increasing well-being in workers. White collar workers (n = 41) in the United Kingdom who reported experiencing injustice in the workplace were randomly assigned to either the forgiveness education program or the relaxation training program. Participants' level of forgiveness, state and trait anxiety, state and trait anger, and anger-in were assessed at pretest, posttest, and four-week follow-up. MANOVA analyses showed participants across the two groups changed on all outcome measures and that the forgiveness education group had greater changes than the relaxation training group on trait anxiety and state anger. Within group t tests revealed the forgiveness education group demonstrated significant change on more outcome variables than the relaxation training group. Implications for research and workplace education are discussed.
Keywords: forgiveness education; workplace injustice; well-being.
Author α: Department of Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States.
σ: Department of Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison; International Forgiveness Institute, Inc., United States.
ρ: Undergraduate Programs & Services, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States.
This study explores a new way for managing anger in the workplace. Adults spend a significant portion of their time working; relationships with co-workers and supervisors can be sources of interpersonal conflict. Arguments, work overload, bullying, harassment, and discrimination can lead to perceptions of injustice which in turn result in hurt feelings, anger, and resentment (Francis & Barling, 2005). In the last decade scholars have begun investigating work relationships and their effects on health and well-being. For example, researchers have found associations between perceived workplace injustice and heart disease (Kivimӓki et al., 2005), aggression (Dupre, Barling, Turner, & Stride, 2010), anxiety (Harlos & Pinder, 2000), depression (Tepper, 2001), and psychiatric disorders (Kivimӓki, Elovainio, Vahtera, Virtanen, & Stansfeld, 2003).
Given the risks to well-being of workplace injustice, psychologists and educators need effective interventions for addressing unfair treatment in work settings. Some authors argue forgiveness can be a positive alternative to anger, resentment, and desire for revenge when coping with workplace injustice (Bobocel, 2013; Palanski, 2012; Struthers, Dupuis, & Eaton, 2005). In this study, we extend existing literature by testing the effects of a forgiveness education program on psychological well-being among those who experienced injustice and related stress in the workplace, which is the unique context that Enright’s forgiveness education program has never been investigated before.
3.1 Workplace Injustice
Workers who perceive they are treated unfairly in the workplace can respond with negative emotions such as anger and anxiety, and their negative emotional responses due to workplace injustice can affect their ability to work. Murphy and Tyler (2008) found employees’ perceptions of organizational policies or decisions (procedural justice) elicited anger as negative emotion, and anger reaction lead to employees’ subsequent non-compliance with rules. Tepper (2001) found that distributive and procedural injustice accounted for significant variance in employees’ anxiety and other psychological distress. Anger and anxiety could bring negative influences to employees, such as job dissatisfaction (Fitzgerald, Haythornthwaite, Suchday, & Ewart, 2003), poor work performance (Haslam, Atkinson, Brown, & Haslam, 2005), absenteeism (Chen & Spector, 1992), turnover intentions (Howard & Cordes, 2010) and decreased work productivity (Murphy, Duxbury, & Higgins, 2006).
Recent researchers proposed four-justice dimensions in the organization (Holtz & Harold, 2013; Colquitt, 2001): distributive justice, procedural justice, informational justice, and interpersonal injustice. The majority of recent studies have focused on procedural justice and distributive justice in the organization examining their relationships with workplace issues, such as psychological strain (Francis & Barling, 2005), job satisfaction (Schmitt & Dörfel, 1999), and organizational commitment (Clay-Warner, Hegtvedt & Roman, 2005). Limited research in the literature has been conducted to examine the effect of interpersonal justice in the workplace. When we use the term interpersonal injustice we refer primarily to the way in which people, in this case in the workplace, interact in their everyday dealings with one another. The underlying principle of interpersonal justice according to Kant and Gregor (1996) is to understand that people are ends in and of themselves and then to treat others as possessing intrinsic worth. This is not a formal justice that is codified in any specific way in the workplace, in contrast to the more formal, rule-based justice issues in the workplace such as procedural, distributive, and infor- mational justice. These three types of justice often have specific rules in place for resolving disputes among co-workers (procedural justice), deter- mining a fair wage for each worker (distributive justice), or providing specific guidelines on how certain procedures take place to produce a product or service (informational justice). Inter- personal injustices often occur in the everyday give-and-take of interactions which can result in disrespect, demoralization, rudeness, and other forms of denying the intrinsic worth of co-workers.
3.2 Forgiveness in the Workplace
Forgiveness is a new approach for dealing with unhealthy anger (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015; Lin, Enright & Klatt, 2011). Enright and his colleagues defined forgiveness as “A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her” (Enright, Freedman, & Rique, 1998, p. 47). A full discussion of what forgiveness is and is not can be found in Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000).
Forgiveness counseling and educational programs have been effective in addressing anger caused by injustice, with a variety of presenting problems such as incest, parental neglect, and drug rehabilitation issues (see Baskin & Enright, 2004 for a meta-analysis). For example, Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, and Baskin (2004) examined the effects of forgiveness therapy on psychological well-being among substance-dependent clients. The results showed that the forgiveness group exhibited significant decreases in state and trait anger, state and trait anxiety, and depression, and significant increases in forgiveness and self-esteem. In another study, Reed and Enright (2006) examined the effects of forgiveness education among women who were emotionally abused by their romantic partners. They found that the forgiveness group demonstrated significantly greater increases in forgiveness and self-esteem while also showing greater decreases in trait anxiety and depression than the alternative treatment group. Similar results have been found in forgiveness educational programs for divorced individuals (Rye et al., 2005), children whose parents were divorcing (Freedman & Knupp, 2003), young adults with attachment problems (Lin, Enright, & Klatt, 2013), and married couples (DiBlasio & Benda, 2008).
Researchers, practitioners, and educators have noted forgiveness can be a vital psychological response for those suffering from perceived interpersonal injustices (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Klatt & Enright, 2009; Worthington, Lin, & Ho, 2012). Some writers argue forgiveness is a positive response to workplace injustice that can mitigate anger, aggression, anxiety, and other negative effects of unfair treatment in work settings (Beugré, 2005; Fehr & Gelfand, 2012; Palanski, 2012), and researchers are beginning to study forgiveness in the workplace empirically. Butler and Mullis (2001) argued forgiveness could be a useful conflict resolution strategy in the workplace. They measured the associations between Adlerian Life Style themes and dimensions of forgiveness. Marler, Cox, Simmering, Bennett, and Fuller (2011) conducted a study investigating the effects of apology and physical contact on forgiveness in the workplace. Participants’ perceptions of the sincerity of the apology affected their willingness to forgive. Struthers et al. (2005) explored the effects of social motivational training on forgiveness. They found social motivational training promoted forgiveness.
Although research on forgiveness in the workplace is emerging, there are no known studies investigating the effectiveness of forgiveness intervention or training that aim to help with individuals’ anger requiring forgiving others who have been unjust to them (as interpersonal injustice) in the workplace; some forgiveness studies have only focused on how people respond to offense in the organization (Aquino, Tripp & Bies, 2001, 2006). Early publication of Bradfield and Aquino (1999) suggested that organizations should consider examining the effectiveness of forgiveness training and interventions in the workplace; yet, this focus has been on how forgiveness emerges at organizational level (Fehr & Gelfand, 2012; Bobocel, 2013).
Based on existing research, we reason that workplace injustice has detrimental effects on employees’ well-being, particularly their levels of anger and anxiety. In this study, we compared the effectiveness of a forgiveness education program to a relaxation training program for improving psychological well-being following workplace injustice. We hypothesize that participants in the forgiveness program will have significantly greater decreases in anger and anxiety, and significantly greater level of forgiveness than participants in relaxation program. This study is the first of its kind to use a forgiveness education program based on the Forgiveness Process Model (FPM, Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000) in the workplace and has the potential to contribute to the knowledge base of workplace injustice.
We used a randomized experimental design to test the effectiveness of the forgiveness and relaxation programs. All participants completed a 12-week structured self-study program, And their psychological well-being was assessed at pretest, posttest, and follow-up points.
We recruited white-collar workers who had experienced, or were experiencing injustice in the workplace in Wales and West Midlands in UK. White-collar workers in this study refer to those who perform non-manual, clerical or administrative work in an office or other professional environment (Soanes & Stevenson, 2008). Participants were recruited via two methods. First, hundreds of recruitment flyers were distributed in libraries, office buildings, social venues, and mailboxes in Cardiff. Second, the researcher contacted human resource departments of corporations in England and Wales, and the researcher travelled to the four organizations that responded to conduct recruitment presentations.
Fifty-five people showed interest in participating in this study. Forty-nine of them completed the pretest survey and proved to be eligible to participate in the study, and were randomly assigned to the forgiveness group or the relaxation group. During training, 7 participants (4 in the forgiveness group and 3 in the relaxation group) dropped out of the study for personal reasons. A total of 42 participants (85.7%) completed all training and assessments. One participant’s scores were excluded because this participant had straight line answers of “2” on the posttest measure of forgiveness. Therefore a total of 41 participants, 19 in the forgiveness group (15 females and 4 males) and 22 in the relaxation group (15 females and 7 males), were included in data analyses. Among these 41 participants, there were 2 managers, 6 team leaders, and 33 staff members. Age data for the participants were not collected.
After recruitment, participants were randomly assigned to either the forgiveness (experimental) group or the relaxation (control) group. All instruments were administered using a web based system. Participants complete the pretest and then completed 12 weeks of training. Participants had been informed that they would engage in a minimum of one hour of self-study each week during a time and in a location of their choice. At the end of each training week, participants were sent an email message reminding them what to do each week and asking them to respond to a set of questions on how much time they spent that week on the training, and letting them know they can ask questions for guidance. The examples are: How often do you practice the training content this week? Do you have questions about training this week? The researcher used participants’ responses to supervise and encourage their participation in the training. After 12 weeks of training, each participant completed a posttest and a 4-week follow-up test. Participants in both groups were reminded to focus on the same offender and instance of unfair treatment while completing the pretest, posttest, and follow-up assessments.
4.3 Self-Study Format
We employed a self-study format to deliver forgiveness program and relaxation program. Each participant was given a published book that served as a training manual and a weekly training syllabus that included the summary of the book content for each week, homework assignments, and reflection questions. The researcher sent weekly email to participants to remind them what to do and to encourage them to ask questions for guidance. The self-study design was used for two reasons. First, the self-study format had been tested and was an effective intervention strategy to reduce anger and anxiety (Graham, Enright, & Klatt, 2012). Second, the self-study format permitted participants in our study to choose when and where to study and practice, which was important given their various schedules and locations.
Forgiveness Program: The book Forgiveness is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (Enright, 2001) was used as the manual for the forgiveness group. Forgiveness is a Choice, was written to help people learn about and practice forgiveness. It used the Forgiveness Process Model (FPM, Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000) to guide readers. The FPM describes four phases of the forgiveness process in which a person uncovers his or her anger and other emotions related to an interpersonal injury; explores options for responding and commits to forgiveness; does the work of forgiving the offender; and experiences the emotional benefits of forgiveness. This model has been widely used by helping professionals and educators. The weekly training syllabus instructed participants which chapters of the book to read each week and provided them with exercises to engage and practice the concepts taught in the book.
Relaxation Program: The relaxation program was a control for the forgiveness program. Relaxation training has been used to reduce work stress in occupational settings (Lesiuk, 2005; Smith, 2008). Relaxation training has been designed to address work stress broadly, including the stress resulting from workplace injustice. Relaxation training attempts to calm the individual and reduce heightened levels of anxiety, anger, and frustration. Relaxation interventions include relaxation exercises, meditation, visualization, and listening to music (Stein, 2001). Researchers have found empirical support for the use of relaxation training programs in the workplace (Lesiuk, 2005; Smith, 2008).
The relaxation group used the book Relaxation: Exercises and Inspirations for Well-Being (Brewer, 2003). This book focused on the learning and practice of relaxation strategies to achieve body-mind harmony. Concepts included identifying stress triggers, breathing into the calm, regaining perspective, and finding tranquility. Similar to the forgiveness program, the weekly training syllabus instructed participants which chapters of the book to read each week and provided them with exercises to engage and practice the concepts taught in the book.
The relaxation exercises did not specifically address or target responses to injustice. The program aimed to inspire individuals to reflect on relaxation and bring relaxation into day-to-day living. We considered this technique different from forgiveness education and therefore, a suitable comparison program.
Forgiveness: Forgiveness was assessed using an Electronically-Altered Version of the Enright Forgiveness Inventory (EFI, Enright, Rique, & Coyle, 2000). All items were kept the same as the original EFI, except that instruction words were added to explicitly direct participants to focus on the same instance of unfair treatment within the workplace setting. The original EFI is a 60-item self-report measure of interpersonal forgiveness that includes six subscales. Total scores range from 60 to 360 with high scores representing high levels of forgiveness. The EFI has established validity with adults and adolescents (Enright et al., 2000). Internal consistency is >=0.90 and test-retest reliability ranges from 0.67 to 0.91 (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). In this study, Cronbach’s alpha reliability was.96.
Anxiety and Anger: We used four scales (state anger, trait anger, state anxiety, and trait anxiety) of the State-Trait Personality Inventory Form Y (STPI, Spielberger & Reheiser, 2009) to assess the intensity of the emotions of anxiety and anger, and “individual differences in how frequently they are experienced as personality traits” (Speilberger & Reherser, 2003, p. 80). Scores on each scale range from 10 to 40 with high scores indicating high levels of anxiety or anger. The STPI anxiety and anger scales are essentially the same as those included in the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (Form Y) (STAI, Spielberger, 1983) and the original Sate-Trait Anger Expression Inventory (STAXI, Spielberger, 1988). Both the STAI (Form Y) and the original STAXI have strong psychometric properties. Test-retest reliability coefficients for trait anxiety range from .73 to .86. Test-retest reliability for state anxiety is relatively low which is to be expected due to the influence of situational factors on ”state” measures (Spielberger & Reheiser, 2009). Both state and trait anxiety scales show high degree of internal consistency with median alpha coefficients of .93 and .90 respectively. The concurrent validity of the STAI (Form Y) is evident in the strong correlations with other measures of trait anxiety (Spielberger & Reheiser, 2009). The original STAXI also has high internal consistency with an alpha of .93 for the state anger scale and .86 for the trait anger scale (Spielberger, 1996). The trait anger scale has good concurrent validity with significant correlation to other measures of anger (Spielberger, 1996). In this study Cronbach’s alphas were as follows: state anxiety = .91, trait anxiety = .84, state anger = .89, and trait anger = .84.
The AX/In (Anger-in) scale of the revised version of original STAXI (Spielberger, 1996) was used to assess how often angry feelings were experienced and suppressed. There are eight items in this scale, with scores ranging from 8 to 32. High scores indicate high frequency in experiencing and suppressing angry feelings. The internal reliability of the AX/In scale is adequate with an alpha coefficient of .73, and the scale has good construct validity (Spielberger, 1996). In this study, Cronbach’s alpha for anger-in was .85.
5.1 Descriptive Data
We summarize injustice incidents reported by participants in Table 1. The most frequent sources were co-workers (N = 15) and supervisors (N = 14). The most common types were “lack of respect,” “bullying or humiliating,” “gossiping,” and “work overload.” Means and standard deviations for all dependent variables at pretest, posttest, and follow-up were presented in Table 2.
5.2 Comparing Educational Programs
We used two types of analysis to examine the effectiveness of the two programs. First, we used the within-subject repeated measures MANOVA, with program as a between-group factor, to investigate the effects of the programs on forgiveness, anxiety, and anger. Second, we examined within-group change for both programs separately by using matched pair t-tests. This analysis was conducted because previous research on forgiveness education programs (e.g. Graham et al., 2012) has shown that both the experimental and control conditions can improve on outcome variables. If both groups produce positive effects, within-group analyses can display patterns in the data that will not be detected in between-group analyses. In both analyses, we used one-tailed tests because we had directional hypotheses and because many studies have showed that forgiveness interventions have positive effects on psychological well-being (Baskin & Enright, 2004).
According to the resulted of the MANOVA analyses presented in Table 3, the omnibus MANOVA tests revealed significant effects for change over time, Wilks' Lambda = 5.575, p = .000, r2 = .314; and for “time x group”, Wilks' Lambda = 2.092, p = .021, r2 = .147. We followed the omnibus tests with univariate tests, using the Greenhouse-Geisser method, to investigate the change in greater detail. The univariate tests showed there was significant change over time (pre-test through follow-up) on all variables: EFI, F = 16.319, p = .000, r2 = .295; State Anxiety, F = 8.817, p = .000, r2 = .184; Trait Anxiety, F = 10.086, p = .000, r2 = .285; State Anger, F = 25.174, p = .000, r2 = .392; Trait Anger, F = 6.597, p = .005, r2 = .145; Anger In, F = 5.472, p = .007, r2 = .123. The univariate tests also showed there were two significant “time x group” interactions favoring the forgiveness group: Trait Anxiety, F = 3.551, p = .041, r2 = .083 and State Anger, F = 5.419, p = .014, r2 = .122. These results indicate participants across the two groups changed on all outcome measures and that the forgiveness group had greater changes than the relaxation training group on trait anxiety and state anger. The effect sizes were small to medium.
Although the above within-subject analysis showed participants improved across two groups, important information could be missed in the “time x group” interactions assessing between- group differences. Following previously published studies we conducted within group analyses using Matched Pair Wilcoxon tests to further investigate the effectiveness of the programs from pretest to posttest and from pretest to follow-up. We used the Bonferroni correction to control the familywise error rate. With the correction for multiple tests, p values needed to be equal to or lower than .008 to be significant.
According the results presented in Table 4, the forgiveness group demonstrated significant within-group change on three of the six outcome variables from pretest to posttest: Forgiveness t = -3.486, p = .002, r2 = .093; State Anxiety t = 2.647, p = .008, r2 = .080; and State Anger t = 5.281, p = .000, r2 = .220. Trait Anger approached significance, t = 2.601, p = .009. The relaxation group showed significant within-group change from pretest to posttest on one of the six outcome measures: Forgiveness t = -3.312, p = .001, r2 = .058. All effect sizes were in the small to medium range.
The forgiveness group demonstrated significant within-group change on five of the six outcome variables from pretest to follow-up: Forgiveness t = -3.879, p = .001, r2 = .106; State Anxiety t = 4.467, p = .000, r2 = .170; Trait Anxiety t = 4.956, p = .000, r2 = .199; State Anger t = 4.377, p = .000, r2 = .222; and Trait Anger t = 3.387, p = .000, r2 = .094. The relaxation group showed significant within-group change from pretest to follow-up on one of the six outcome measures, State Anger t = 3.219, p = .002, r2 = .130. Effect sizes were small to medium.
We used a forgiveness education program as a means of effecting anger reduction and the enhancement of well-being in workplace settings with adults. The results indicated that both training programs improved the participants’ psychological well-being. The forgiveness program appeared to be more effective than the relaxation program for reducing anger and anxiety following injustice in the workplace. The benefits of the forgiveness program were maintained beyond the 12-week training period.
The significant increase and maintenance of forgiveness, and the significant decrease and maintenance of momentary feeling of anger and anxiety in the forgiveness group implied that participants who studied and practiced forgiveness had learned to work on their anger and anxiety toward the offender, had changed their ways of perceiving or interpreting the offense, and had gained compassion or moral love towards the offender. Participants’ reduced level of trait anxiety at posttest and follow-up in forgiveness group was encouraging: it showed forgiveness education has the potential to not only momentary feelings but also in affecting individuals’ long term psychological health.
Relaxation programs have been shown to be effective in reducing anger and anxiety in occupational settings. Although the relaxation program appeared to be effective in this study, it did not produce the breadth of positive change on the posttest measures that the forgiveness program did. Also, fewer positive effects were maintained at the follow-up assessment in the relaxation program, comparing to the forgiveness program.
The relaxation program in this study focused on the physical body with muscle relaxation and breath-control. The program did affect individuals’ well-being in general. However, the program had no specific content that addressed cognitive, emotional, or behavioral change. Relaxation training may be effective for some workplace issues; however, when addressing the complicated psychological issue, such as injustice, it does not appear that relaxation can produce the same level of long-term change that forgiveness can.
The following factors limited the generalizability of our results. First, the sample size was relatively small although it was sufficient for significance testing. Although there were a total 41 participants, the results cannot be generalized across occupations and industries in the UK. Second, we did not use gender in our data analysis. We only had 11 male participants in our study. The relatively small number of male participants was not sufficient for conducting group comparisons by gender. Third, we did not know how much time and effort participants actually invested in the weekly training activities. Response frequency to weekly email message was the only variable that we could use to measure the extent to which participants were devoted to the training programs. Fourth, as we used a self-report questionnaire to gather data, the reported injustices were susceptible to participants’ subjective response bias. This study also had several strengths including the development of a manualized program in which many workers participated due to flexibility in time and location, the use of relevant clinical measures, and the use of a well-validated model of forgiveness.
It is worth mentioning that 100% of the reported injustice incidents in our study were interpersonal. For example, some participants stated that they were excluded by their supervisors because they perceived that their supervisors tried to weaken their authority by going around them when dealing with work issues. Some participants said that their co-workers commented on or joked about their physical or mental characteristics, and others reported that they were ignored by their fellow employees in the workplace. Although participants were asked to think of someone whom they believed treated them unfairly in the workplace in the Electronically-Altered Version of the EFI for the Workplace, nobody reported other types of injustice in this open-ended survey. Future research needs to be conducted to find out whether or not our approach is effective on other types of injustices in the workplace.
Because forgiveness education in this context was shown to be stronger than the well- established relaxation training approach, the findings here are worth replicating to ascertain the generalizability of the findings. If this can be replicated, then we have a systematic, easily-implemented, and non-threatening way to reduce anger in the workplace. For example, replication research can be conducted between different cultural and social settings, between various occupational groups, between different positions or types of jobs people hold in the organization with larger sample sizes. Future research also can modify the design to enable the researcher to assess the fidelity of the training more accurately by using other alternative technology to track participants’ learning progress instead of just tracking online responding frequencies from participants. It is also recommended that future research examines process variables (Cox, Karanika, Griffiths, & Houdmont, 2007), as possible process variables could be useful in assessing forgiveness in the workplace including the nature of managerial support for education programs, employees’ willingness and ability to participate, and the quality of social relations and trust within the organization.
The findings of this study have important implications for preventive psychological approaches at work which can be introduced by human resource personnel. Because this is an educational approach, not a deliberate clinical approach, it could be implemented in any workplace situation in which human resource personnel suspect heightened anxiety, anger, and general stress. The emphasis on education suggests that large numbers of workers can attend forgiveness seminars or online learning to improve psychological health. We suggest an annual seminar of forgiveness so that this theme can be present in workplaces on a continual basis rather than as a one-time activity that is soon forgotten.
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Table 1: Reported Injustice Incidents
Types of Incidents
Source of Incidents
Lack of respect
Failure to provide feedback or assistance
Bullying or humiliating
Lack of support
Lack of sense of responsibility
Lack of integrity
Lack of trust
Inconsistent standard and Expectations
Lack of confidentiality
Table 2: Means and Standard Deviations of Dependent Variables
Pretest M (SD)
Posttest M (SD)
Follow-up M (SD)
Pretest M (SD)
Posttest M (SD)
Follow-up M (SD)
Table 3: Within-Subject MANOVA Tests: Effects of Training Programs on Dependent Variables
Time x Group
Time x Group
*p < .05, **p < .01
Table 4: Matched-Pair Wilcoxon Tests: Comparison of Changes within Each Group
Forgiveness Pretest - Posttest
Forgiveness Pretest - Follow-up
Relaxation Pretest – Posttest
Relaxation Pretest – Follow-up
*p ≤ .008 (To control familywise error, p values needed to be ≤ .008 to be significant.)