My long-term goal was to run a manufacturing plant. Since I was just a shop floor employee, though, and the next step was to get promoted to a supervisory role in my department, I did everything I could to make myself the best candidate.

Then I was offered the chance to start up a new short-run manufacturing department. While not a promotion, it was a chance to further highlight my leadership ability and problem-solving skills -- to add things to my list of qualifications that no other candidate would have.

It sounded like a great opportunity, but I wanted to be sure. So I asked my department's manager for advice and expressed my biggest concern. "You know I want to be a supervisor," I said, "and I'm worried that taking this role will make me 'out of sight, out of mind.'"

He laughed. "Absolutely not," he said. "We know what you can do. You're basically next in line, and that job will make you an even better candidate."

"Sold," I thought.

A year later a supervisory position opened up in my "old" department.

And I didn't get the job.

I met with my "old" manager to get some feedback. I asked what I could do -- what skills, experience, etc. I needed to pick up -- to make sure that next time, I would be the best candidate.

He sat quietly for a moment. "Actually," he finally said, "I can't think of anything. It just came down to the fact that you weren't around every day."

"Wait," I said, as calmly as I could. (He was the kind of boss who would never let a burned bridge be rebuilt.)  "We talked about that. I wouldn't have transferred if I thought it would hurt my chances to be a supervisor."

He shrugged. I could tell he knew he had at least said, if not done, the wrong thing. But he didn't say a word.

Nor did he apologize.

Which, according to research, is par for the leadership course: A 2020 study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology found that leaders are significantly less likely to apologize for "relationship" mistakes than they are for "task" mistakes.

Task mistakes versus relationship mistakes

Forget to sign my overtime sheet? That's a task mistake. Forget to follow up on a request? That's a task mistake. According to the research, most bosses will apologize. Task mistakes may involve competence, but they don't involve trust or integrity.

So the average bosses don't feel those mistakes reflect on them as a boss, or a leader, or a person.

But what if you tell me I won't fall off the candidate list if I transfer to another department, and then tell me the only reason you didn't promote me because I was out of sight, out of mind?

That's not a task mistake. You said one thing and did another: That's a relationship mistake.

For which most bosses won't apologize.

Instead, where relationship mistakes are concerned, research shows most bosses tend to double down and try to justify the mistake. (Even thought my boss didn't.)

The apology mismatch

The result is what the researchers call an "apology mismatch."

Most people tend to want an apology after someone does something intentional. But most leaders are likely to apologize only when they do something unintentionally. Like forgetting to sign a form, or follow up on a request.

Since those fall into the "oops" category. "Oh, shoot, I'm sorry -- I'll take care of that right now," those are simple situations to put right and easy apologies to make.

"I know I told you that, and I'm sorry"? That situation can't easily be put right. And that admission comes at a cost to how the boss wishes to be perceived, both as a leader and as a person. 

Which makes it a tough apology to make.

Even though it's the kind of apology that really matters.

Because a mistake is just a mistake. Mistakes made by bosses can be frustrating, but they typically don't impact the boss/employer relationship. But an intentional action, one that results in a negative outcome for an employee? Doubling down and justifying your action -- or inaction -- just makes the situation worse. 

That's why, when they make a relationship mistake, the best bosses apologize.

Because they know that relationships matter.

And that the only way to begin to undo the damage caused by a relationship mistake is to offer a sincere and heartfelt apology -- one with no justification, no rationalizing, and no attempt to shift even the smallest amount of blame back onto the other person.

Say you're sorry. Say why you're sorry. Take the blame, even if you weren't completely at fault.

Do that, and the other person is more likely to start to forgive. Do that, and then you can start to focus not on what happened, but on what can happen next time. 

Which, if you think about it, is the true goal of any apology: To make things better, both now and in the future.