climbing up a swinging ladder
PHOTO: Jason Wong

I’ve been the most senior woman at a number of companies, and younger women often ask me for advice. I’ve told them to accept that people might think you’re cold, mean or rude if you start making moves to progress in your career. And that if you don't make any moves, people might think you’re “nice,” and you’ll stagnate. I’ve also told many, many women to disregard what people say about them or call them because someday they’ll be called “the boss.” 

But I’ve recently become convinced that the No. 1 skill a woman needs to climb the ranks and succeed is deceptively simple: learn to forgive.

People Make Mistakes

People make mistakes. Champions of women’s issues might accidentally ask the only woman in the room to take notes. Peers might be more focused on why a woman doesn’t have a husband than why she wants her next promotion. Otherwise smart, well-meaning people can say incredibly dumb things.

As you rise through the ranks, these moments become more prevalent rather than less. Unfortunately, men who only deal with women as subordinates, vendors or clients often can be both more powerful and less likely to edit themselves. And because of their power, people don’t call them out when they say something stupid.

These slights anger me. But whereas I used to walk around, a towering inferno of rage, I eventually realized this wasn't doing me any favors. The only person I hurt by holding onto my anger was myself — and worse, I ended up hurting my career as well. I adopted “never blame malice for stupidity” as my motto and started forgiving the perpetrators. 

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Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean You're a Punching Bag

Learning to forgive doesn’t mean you become a one-woman punching bag. It's not a binary choice between becoming a punching bag or becoming someone who makes everyone around them feel bad for the slightest mistake. The former person won’t get very far and the latter makes everyone uncomfortable and afraid to talk.

When I started forgiving the people around me (well-meaning or otherwise), I realized I needed to create a process for forgiveness. I needed to decide how I wanted to act in the moment of the slight, how I wanted to handle the incident afterwards, and how I wanted to treat the perpetrator going forward. 

By having a few canned responses that I could deliver with a smile, such as, “Wow, I can’t believe you said that,” or, “No, I won’t take the notes. We can’t have the only woman in the room do that — it looks weird” it helped me respond in the moment. I can’t say my responses are perfect, but pre-planning does help.

Related Article: If Managers Don't Become Coaches, Careers Will Suffer

The Most Important Person to Forgive

The biggest challenge — but the most important if you want to get ahead in your career — is learning to forgive yourself. If you’re an extrovert, you’ll have to learn to forgive that incredibly stupid thing you said during happy hour to your boss. If you’re an introvert, you’ll have to learn to forgive yourself for not having a good answer when your boss asked you a question. We're all human, we forget things, do things wrong, make mistakes and do any number of “horrible” things in our careers.

Much like carrying around a grudge towards those who've slighted you, not forgiving yourself will hold you back in your career. It’s hard to do a great board presentation if you’re dwelling on the mistake you made in the last one. It’s hard to trust yourself on a big project if you can’t let go of the mistake you made on a similar project five years ago.

While forgiving yourself might be the most important forgiveness you can practice, it’s also the most difficult. I find that going through the thought exercise of, “What would I think if I heard/saw someone do what I just did?” is valuable. We're often much more charitable with others than we are on ourselves. 

By learning to forgive others and yourself, you’ll carry around less anger, and it will be easier to think proactively about the work you need to do. It will be easier to persuade others to your points when they’re not detecting anger or resentment from you. Ultimately, freed from carrying the burden of anger around, you’ll find it easier to climb the ladder to the top.