To Apologize or Justify: Leader Responses to Task and Relational Mistakes

Andrea L. Hetrick, Lily D. Blocker, Joshua Fairchild, Samuel T. Hunter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Leadership roles are complex, creating an environment where leaders are likely to make mistakes that result in negative outcomes. We shift the conversation in the literature from examining the effectiveness of mistake responses toward exploring why leaders use different mistake recovery methods. We employ an online experimental method to distinguish between task and relationship mistakes for leaders and suggest that different attributions are made for these two types of mistakes (Study 1). 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, we predict that leaders are more likely to apologize for task mistakes and are more likely to justify their relationship mistakes rather than admit wrongdoing for them. We find support for these predictions using a mixed methods approach, employing a laboratory experiment (Study 2) and a critical incident method surveying a panel of leaders (Study 3). As such, this paper extends our understanding of the mistake recovery process for leaders by demonstrating that 1) leaders’ relationship mistakes are viewed as more globally representative of the leader than task mistakes, and 2) leaders are more likely to apologize for task mistakes but more likely to justify relationship mistakes. Relational and task mistakes, however, were not found to be different in regard to their ambiguity or the extent to which they were viewed as a mistake.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)30-45
Number of pages16
Journalbasic and applied social psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Applied Psychology

Cite this