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“Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.”

Gilbert K. Chesterton


Let’s start with several definitions.

Tolerance is a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.

Acceptance in human psychology is a person’s assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit.

Understanding is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message, whereby one can think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object.


Tolerance is universally accepted as a virtue.

It is a version of the golden rule in that, insofar as we want others to treat us decently, we need to treat them decently as well.

It is also a pragmatic formula for the functioning of society, as we can see in the omnipresent wars between different religions, political ideologies, nationalities, ethnic groups, and other us-versus-them divisions. It is a basis for the First Amendment protections that enabled the United States to avoid the religious strife that plagued Europe for centuries.


Acceptance, however, goes a step beyond tolerance.

If a sign of tolerance is a feeling of “I can live with X (behavior, religion, race, culture, etc.),” then acceptance moves beyond that in the direction of “X is OK.”

You can tolerate something without accepting it, but you cannot accept something without tolerating it.

For example, when a son or daughter tells a parent about an unwelcome career choice, marital partner, or sexual identity, he or she wants that information not just to be tolerated but to be accepted.


Finally, moving beyond tolerance and acceptance, we come to the problem—understanding.

It is possible to tolerate or accept someone without understanding him or her, and the same goes for tolerating or accepting a different culture. And the converse is also true. It is possible to understand a culture or a person without acceptance or even tolerance.

Business Applications

The use of tolerance an essential and effective way to manage.

For example, using tolerance when poor decisions are made provides an effective leader with a springboard for teaching and coaching the team he or she manages.

Using tolerance and avoiding personal unconstructive criticism is the correct path to follow.  Using the poor decision as an opportunity for future growth of the team is where the leader should focus energy.

This does not mean tolerance and acceptance for poor decision-making are synonymous with each other.

Quite the opposite is true. A strong leader should never accept poor decision-making. High-performance results are achieved by doing the right things at the right time. Achieving excellence is the byproduct of learning what does not work.

While good leaders will employ tolerance and acceptance as part of their management tools, great leaders will also focus on understanding. 

What part of the process causes poor decision-making to occur?  Where in our training did we fail in teaching the decision-making process?  Too often, as we see in our cultural dialogue today, we mostly stop at tolerance, occasionally consider acceptance, and practically never get to any level of understanding.

In the business world, we must go beyond tolerance and acceptance and work to understand.

The Bible

Historically, the Jewish people and the Samaritans were bitter enemies.

It was this stark enmity between them that makes the Parable of the Good Samaritan so rich. Jesus taught a lesson to his fellow Jews, with the hero being the unimaginable—a Samaritan of all people.

Jesus relied on this division between the Jews and Samaritans to teach tolerance and acceptance.

Colossians 3:13 says,

“Continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely even if anyone has a cause for complaint against another.”

And 1 Peter 4:8 says,

“Above all things, have intense love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.”

Although Jesus was a model of tolerance, he did not condone indecency, hypocrisy, and other forms of badness. Instead, he boldly condemned such things.

“Whoever practices vile things hates the light [of truth],” he said.—John 3:20.

Jesus understood acceptance.

As for understanding, Jesus taught in Matthew 6:33,

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

As business leaders, we need to understand that tolerance is only a first and frequently an insufficient step.  We must move to acceptance and understanding if we are to be successful.