Expressing (vs. withholding) forgiveness is often promoted as a beneficial response for victims. In the present research, we argue that withholding (vs. expressing) forgiveness can also be beneficial to victims by stimulating subsequent transgressor compliance – a response that is valuable in restoring the victim’s needs for control. Based on deterrence theory, we argue that a victim’s withheld (vs. expressed) forgiveness promotes transgressor compliance when the victim has low power, relative to the transgressor. This is because withheld (vs. expressed) forgiveness from a low-power victim elicits transgressor fear. On the other hand, because people are fearful of high-power actors, high-power victims can expect high levels of compliance from a transgressor, regardless of whether they express forgiveness or not. A critical incidents survey (Study 1) and an autobiographic recall study (Study 2) among employees, as well as a laboratory experiment among business students (Study 3), support these predictions. These studies are among the first to reveal that withholding forgiveness can be beneficial for low-power victims in a hierarchical context – ironically, a context in which offering forgiveness is often expected.

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Keywords compliance, deterrence theory, fear, forgiveness, Power
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Journal European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology
Zheng, M.X. (Michelle Xue), van Dijke, M.H, Narayanan, J, & de Cremer, D. (2017). When expressing forgiveness backfires in the workplace: victim power moderates the effect of expressing forgiveness on transgressor compliance. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1–18. doi:10.1080/1359432X.2017.1392940