Friday, 21 July 2023 04:44

Know people – especially bosses – who refuse to apologize? Science says this is why

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Years ago I had a boss who frequently screwed up our paychecks. We clocked in and out, but the system was wonky and supervisors needed to make corrections before submitting printouts to payroll. 

He would apologize, hurry off to correct the problem for the next paycheck, come back to confirm he had taken care of it, and apologize again. 


A little, but he was a pretty good supervisor and a reasonably good guy – as Mark Cuban says, being nice is an underrated superpower – so we found it more amusing than irritating. But then there was the time I learned he didn't pass on my request to be part of a high-visibility process improvement team. 

When I asked why, he said he didn't want to lose me for three months. "That could have been a great opportunity for me," I said. "Maybe I wouldn't have been chosen, but I at least wanted the chance." He pursed his lips, shrugged, and walked away.


Not this time. I was surprised, but as it turns, out I shouldn't have been.

Research shows apologizing for certain kinds of mistakes, and not for others, is surprisingly – and unfortunately – common: a study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology found the average leader is much more likely to apologize for task mistakes than for relationship mistakes.

Messing up our payroll? Whether it was because of faulty math, inattention, or laziness, that was a task mistake. While it wasn't a good look, hey: no one is perfect.

Deciding not to submit my request to be on a process improvement team? That was a relationship mistake, instead of indicating a lack of competence in one small aspect of his job, it showed a broader lack of professionalism and integrity.

Putting who he was as a leader, and as a person, in question.

As the researchers write:

We found that task mistakes are viewed by leaders as more specific and less personal, and that relationship mistakes are viewed as more global, describing the leader's stable characteristics rather than a specific event.

From these findings ... leaders are more likely to apologize for task mistakes and are more likely to justify their relationship mistakes rather than admit wrongdoing for them.

"I messed up your payroll" is relatively easy to admit, and apologize for. 

"I screwed you out of a potential opportunity" is a lot harder to admit. As a result, when relational mistakes occur, the study found that instead of apologizing, leaders are more likely to try to justify the mistake they made. (After all, if I wasn't wrong, I don't have to apologize.)

All of which leads to what the researchers call an apology mismatch. Most leaders are likely to apologize when they make a task – think unintentional – mistake. Yet we really need an apology when a leader (or anyone) makes a relational – think intentional – mistake.

And then the relationship falls apart. 

A task mistake can be irritating, but correcting those errors is usually easy, and even if you don't apologize, most people typically move on. (I didn't need an apology when my boss messed up my payroll. I just wanted him to fix it.)

A relational mistake, one that results in a negative outcome for an employee, is usually harder and sometimes impossible to correct. Get defensive? Try to justify your actions? You just make a bad situation worse. 

By all means, apologize when you make a task mistake. That's just common courtesy. But always apologize – sincerely, without justification, without rationalization, and without qualification – when you make a relational mistake.

Because while you should apologize for a task mistake, but you definitely need to apologize for a relational mistake. Granted, it still might not undo the damage caused, but apologizing at least gives you a chance to repair the damage to the relationship.



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