Q: I’m the boss at work (or a team leader – or in any way in charge of others). When I make mistakes, there’s no point in apologizing to those who work under me. It just makes me look weak and undermines my authority, right?
A: Actually, there’s research that suggests that when a leader apologizes for a mistake, it actually improves the working relationship in the office. However, a lot depends on the type of mistake – whether it was an error in competence or an error in personal integrity.
Many bosses and leaders take the attitude that if they apologize for errors (and let’s face it, we all make mistakes), it makes them look weak in front of their employees. However, is this true?
- It’s also true that employees and leaders that are psychologically healthy tend to work harder and better. Good leaders inspire hard work in their employees.
- Based on the above ideas, some researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada did a couple studies to test the idea that possibly, a leader who apologizes for an error might actually improve his or her own well-being as well as the well-being of his employees.
- The results were published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2014.
- The researchers got a group of 159 full-time employees who were employed at least 30 hours per week and reported to a supervisor to be study participants.
- Participants were randomly split into two groups:
- An “integrity-based” transgression condition, or
- A “competence-based” transgression condition.
- In the “integrity” condition, participants were asked to think about a situation in which their leader offended them intentionally by displaying selfish or self-serving behaviors.
- In the “competence” condition, participants were asked to think about a situation in which their leader offended them unintentionally due to a lack of knowledge, interpersonal skills, or technical skills.
- After thinking of an incident, participants were asked to rate the severity of the offense in their view.
- Then, participants were asked questions regarding the leader’s apology:
- Whether the leader apologized afterward
- Whether the leader admitted guilt
- Whether the leader was aware of how their behavior affected others
- Whether the leader tried to make restitution
- Whether the leader expressed regret
- Whether the leader acknowledged how hurtful or problematic their behavior was.
- Finally, the participants were asked about their mental and psychological well-being, including their feelings about work.
- After a statistical analysis, the researchers found a few interesting things about leader mistakes and apologies:
- Leader apologies were significantly and positively correlated with follower well-being. When the leaders apologized for their errors, followers were much better off, psychologically and in their job satisfaction.
- It didn’t matter whether the error was intentional (selfish or self-serving) or unintentional (due to lack of competence). Apologies seemed to work either way.
- However, as you might expect, more severe errors were associated with lower employee well-being.
- The last study was composed of employees. But what about bosses and supervisors?
- The researchers conducted a second study, similar to the first, but surveyed a group of 256 managers and supervisors with a minimum of three employees that reported to them.
- Once again, participants were randomly assigned to an integrity or competency condition.
- This time, the supervisors were asked to think about a time that they had offended one of their employees, either intentionally to get ahead (integrity), or due to a lack of skills or resources (competency).
- Supervisors were asked to write a few sentences describing their situation.
- Supervisors were also asked to rate the severity of their error.
- Then, supervisors answered the same questions regarding whether they apologized, and the extent of the apology.
- Supervisors then answered the same questions regarding their own mental health and job satisfaction.
- Additionally, supervisors were asked about their own self-worth and pride, to see if bosses who apologized felt weaker or undermined for doing so.
- So what should you never apologize for? Once again, it was found that leaders who apologized also tended to have significantly higher well-being and job satisfaction.
- Leaders who apologized also had higher pride and self-worth in their work. In other words, apologizing didn’t seem to make them feel like less of a person, or a weaker boss.
- However, unlike in Study 1, the type of error did seem to matter somewhat. Supervisors who thought about a time when they displayed an error in competence and apologized felt much better afterward than those who thought about a time when they displayed poor integrity (intentionally hurting someone in order to get ahead).
- In other words, apologizing for going against your own integrity didn’t seem to help as much. A man’s integrity seems to be extremely important in his well-being.
- Interestingly, after a severe error, an apology tended to have an even stronger impact on the supervisor’s positive emotions and self-worth and pride.
- In other words, after a severe error, a leader may be even more tempted to not apologize. However, the apology would actually do them good.
- An apology did NOT make a supervisor weaker and undermine his position.
- In fact, apologizing after making an error had the following effects:
- Increasing employee well-being
- Increasing employee job satisfaction
- Increasing supervisor well-being
- Increasing supervisor pride and self-worth
Generally, it didn’t matter if the error was intentional or unintentional. It didn’t matter if the error was selfish or if the error displayed the supervisor’s lack of competency or resources.
The only way that the type of error made a difference was that an error that went against the supervisor’s own integrity had more negative effects. As it should!
The bottom line is: a good boss should apologize after making a real error that offends an employee. It does NOT undermine his position or make him seem weaker.
Byrne, A., Barling, J., & Dupre, K. E. (2014). Leader apologies and employee and leader well-being. Journal of Business Ethics, 121, 91-106. Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10551-013-1685-3