As leaders we set the tone. When we go to the dark side and let anger, resentment, or entitlement dominate our mood and our actions, we create a toxic workplace. Whatever the trigger is –problems at home, an unforgiving customer, a problem employee, a new policy from above – we are amplifying it and giving it life on our own team if we can’t move on.
But what can we do with negative emotions that will not go away? What do we do when we start doing things we never thought we would, like yelling at our employees, being short with a customer, or doing crappy work?
I found an answer recently when I listened to Cliff Derksen speak about his 33-year journey since the murder of his daughter Candace, including the more than 20-year wait for the police to arrest someone, and the many ups and downs with the legal system since.
He spoke about one of his low points on the journey. A time when anger was winning the battle for his attention. He talked about working as a delivery driver – yelling at a warehouse person in one location, saying inappropriate things to a customer in another, doing a poor job on a delivery, and simply not caring. He was mad at the suspect, mad at the police, mad at the media, mad at his boss, and mad at himself. He could not find it in his heart to forgive as he always had. After having to apologize – on more than one occasion – he realized he was becoming someone he did not recognize.
To overcome his situation, he loaded an imaginary truck with all his anger. He loaded one pallet with his anger about the murderer, one with his anger for the police, another with all the stuff he hated about his job, and another with the anger he felt at himself. He listed all those things in detail in his mind as he loaded each of the pallets. He then drove the imaginary truck to the edge of the Grand Canyon and he pushed each pallet off the back of the truck one at a time, listing off all the things that angered him yet again.
In doing this detailed mental exercise as he drove around the city doing his deliveries, he felt some of the weight of the anger lifting and forgiveness creeping back into his heart. Then the most powerful realization hit him like ton of bricks. By this time, he knew the life story of the man accused of killing his daughter. He knew of the terrible things done directly to this man, and he knew of the terrible things this man allegedly did to his own daughter. Cliff saw that if this man had been capable of forgiveness instead of giving in to anger after what was done to him, perhaps Candace would still be alive.
The irony of Cliff himself going down the road of acting in anger instead of finding forgiveness was a powerful realization that he said sealed the deal for him and brought him back to a place of forgiveness.
For me, this story is powerful. I struggle, as you probably do too, to get past the daily transgressions against me, to focus on the good and move things forward. The key is forgiveness. As humans, our most powerful freedom is the freedom to choose our next actions, no matter what came before. Candace’s alleged murderer chose to escalate the wrongs done to him by doing even worse things to others. We can choose to de-escalate, to forgive, and move on to positive things. Cliff’s mental exercise to help let negative thoughts go and his realization about how the lack of forgiveness may have led to his daughter’s murder have been a wake-up call for me about staying on right side of the forgiveness vs. anger equation. I think it’s time to load the truck and take a mental road-trip to the Grand Canyon.