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Justice, Mercy, and the Irish Curse

Updated: Oct 3, 2019

Don't be fooled by those smilin' Irish eyes. Beneath that sunny disposition lurks a dark and terrible storm waiting to be unleashed.

We all have our crosses to bear in life. One of mine is a significant amount of Irish blood. Everyone knows about the renown luck of the Irish, but few have ever heard about the "curse".

In addition to being incredible dancers, immune to psychoanalysis, and natural-born pub-boxers, most Celts from Eire also carry two related but seemingly contradictory traits.

On one hand, we are extremely affable and loyal to our friends – sometimes in the extreme. We love a good time – also sometimes in the extreme. You always want a few Irish at the party and definitely at a funeral.

On the other hand, betray us and you can easily be added to the hallowed “you are now dead to me” list. We are Olympic-level justice-dispensers and grudge-bearers. This, not whiskey, is the true Irish curse. Just don’t tell anyone I told you. This is confidential tribal information.

There’s an ancient and pious Irish prayer goes something like this:

Lord, may those who love us love us, and those who do not, may You turn their hearts. If You do not turn their hearts, turn their ankles, so we will know them by their limping.

These habits served my people well as new immigrants fighting for survival in 19th century Philadelphia neighborhoods like Fishtown and Kensington. However, modern life in an organization calls for a little more, shall we say… nuance.

BTW… Don’t bother visiting Fishtown now. They got rid of most of the Irish and replaced them with hipsters.

How’d the Irish develop this overblown sense of personal justice? Well, we spent a good thousand years or so fighting each other, another several hundred fighting the Brits, then we spent most of the 20th Century fighting both the Brits and each other.

Those who came to Ameri-kay during the potato famine of the mid-1800's then fought some more with each other on both sides of the US Civil War.

And the rest? They just fought anyone in the room. It’s good craic, so why not?

That kind of history produces a few things: a dark and plucky sense of humor, a special sensitivity to slights, and for better or worse… Connor McGregor (mostly worse).

While those of Irish descent might have perfected this love/hate flip-flop superpower, it's actually a common problem – especially when we feel we’ve been deeply wronged. This comes from a faulty understanding of the nature of two fundamentally important, yet

utterly neglected concepts for leaders: justice and mercy.

Just in case you weren’t taught by Irish nuns, let’s break it down a bit. Simply put…

Justice is the debt we rightly owe to another. Mercy is the willful suspension of that debt in order to draw forth a higher good (i.e. a higher good than the debt we rightly owe).

For instance, if someone borrows twenty dollars from us, we rightly expect it to be paid back. That’s justice. If we find out that our debtor’s child has suddenly contracted a serious illness and they are facing unexpected doctor’s bills, then forgiving that debt would be a magnanimous act of mercy. A higher good is accomplished by strengthening our friendship with a grateful debtor, as well as helping him provide for his ailing child.

Here’s another example. When someone violates a serious social contract (i.e. commits a crime), they receive a punishment that is (ideally) proportional to their wrongdoing, thus paying back their “debt” to society. Do the crime. Do the time. That’s also a type of justice, however simplistic and unevenly applied. If it is a first offense, the offender is demonstrably contrite, or willingly makes an effort to repair the harm they caused; lessening or suspending that sentence would be a correct and civil application of mercy.

However, what do you do when someone betrays your trust as a leader? What do you do when someone hurts your organization through poor performance, bad behavior, or willful negligence? What if someone is just a generally offensive pain-in-the-arse? These "offenses" also create a kind "debt" and demand a "just" response. If so, when is it proper to offer "mercy'?

In all three cases above, the same rules apply. Here they are in a nutshell.

An offense creates a debt. Justice demands that the debt be paid. That debt can be forgiven through an application of mercy. However, to apply mercy appropriately (so as to not offend justice) the following conditions must be met:

1. The person acknowledges they have caused harm, and
2. Demonstrates that they have genuine remorse for that harm, and
3. Expresses a clear and credible intention to change (i.e. not repeat that particular behavior), and
4. The potential application of mercy (the forgiveness of the debt rightly owed) is likely to bring about a greater good than exacting the mere demands of justice alone (i.e. formal punishment or a smack in the gob).

Highly bureaucratic organizations governed by rigid policy and procedure tend to apply justice harshly and numbly, skipping over opportunities to selectively apply mercy and its potential benefits. Withholding mercy when the above conditions are present, is itself injustice. In the process, such organizations lose countless human opportunities to encourage a deliberately developmental culture that builds better people and not only obedient workers.

On the other hand, conflict averse, chaotic, or loosey-goosey organizations actively encourage bad behavior and poor performance by failing to confront wrongdoing. These cultures (and the leaders who lead them) often pride themselves on their kind and “merciful” nature, when in fact they are simply neglectful, cowardly, or both. I cover this type of leader in my article, The Peacemonger: Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile.

To insist on the application of mercy when the above conditions are not met is an injustice to those harmed and to the offender. Those harmed receive no just payment of the debt they are owed. The person who did the harming experiences no real consequences for wrongdoing and is robbed of a potential opportunity to learn and change. This is what happens when those in authority take the easy route and fail to hold people accountable.

Because most leaders and organizations don't spend time thinking about justice, they also fail to practice true mercy. They are inextricably linked. You cannot have one without the other.

So, the next time someone is nasty to you in a meeting, and you’re trying to decide whether it’s time to be Mr. Rogers or The Punisher, check yourself by considering the conditions above.

If this happens to be particularly difficult for you, take it from a green-blooded son of Irish immigrants like me… if I can grow and change, anyone can.

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