Steve Carell portrayed a buffoonish boss on the popular sitcom 'The Office.' Steve Carell portrayed a buffoonish boss on the popular sitcom 'The Office.' Steve Carell portrayed a buffoonish boss on the popular sitcom 'The Office.' (Photo: NBC)

When bosses say sorry, do they really mean it?

A new study explores our perceptions of those in power.

You walk into the office break room and it's a mess. Someone spilled the coffee and didn't clean it up. And the box of donuts which you so thoughtfully brought in this morning has been rudely knocked over, crumbs flying everywhere.

Let's say a colleague was the culprit. He comes up to you, explains how he was in a big rush this morning and on deadline for an important meeting when he desperately ransacked the kitchen for something to eat. He says he's sorry, and you accept his apology. Now imagine if the coffee-spilling, donut-mangling perp was none other than your boss. Would you accept their apology the same as you would your co-worker's?

Apparently not. Powerful people who apologize come across as disingenuous. That's the findings of a new study from an international team of researchers from the United States, Israel and the Netherlands.

“The high-status person is perceived as someone who can control their emotions more effectively and use them strategically, and accordingly they are perceived as less sincere," explained Dr. Arik Cheshin of Israel's University of Haifa, one of the authors of the study. "This perception applies to the world of business and work .... The more senior they are, the less authentic their emotions are perceived as being."

This is just the latest research that Dr. Cheshin has done about perceptions. He previously studied how a pitcher's expression may give a batter an edge in baseball, as well as how smile emojis shouldn't replace your actual smile.

The new study about apologies – which involved a series of experiments, each involving hundreds of participants – was just published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

To conduct the research, the scientists described several workplace scenarios to the participants. Each situation involved an employee doing something wrong, and then apologizing for it afterwards. They were even shown real footage of the CEO of Toyota apologizing for brake issues in the company's cars. But some participants were told he was a junior employee while others were let in on the fact that he was the CEO.

In all the scenarios, the more senior employee was viewed as being less sincere. “The assumption is that the CEO has much more to lose, and accordingly has a stronger motivation to try to use their emotions to create empathy," wrote the researchers.

“Positions of power come with a disadvantage," Dr. Cheshin explained. "The expression of emotions after a transgression are perceived as less authentic and less sincere when they are made by a high-status person. Accordingly, people are less inclined to forgive high-status people than those with lower status."

Although this isn't always the case when it comes to people with power. Previous related research has explored what's known as "parasocial relationships" – the connection we often feel for celebrities we've never met. Follow an actress on Instagram and you somehow feel a bond with her. In those instances, researchers have found, people will often give these celebrities the benefit of the doubt when they've done something wrong.

For example, a 2010 study showed that with certain wrongdoings, people would forgive someone like Oprah – with whom they had a parasocial relationship with – over someone they actually knew in real life.

And what if Oprah was your boss? Well, that's a different question.


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When bosses say sorry, do they really mean it?
A new study about apologies explores our perceptions of those in power.