What Steve Jobs’ Approach to Conflict Can Teach You About Leadership

July 16, 2019

In recent articles, I have explored the Asian concept of “face,” and how, when used authentically, it serves as a social currency in family, friendship and in business.

In this article, I would like to take the discussion of “saving face” one step further with an exploration of more than just what saving face is. I would like to define what saving face is not.

Saving face is the act of helping someone recover after a mistake or misstep, in a way that preserves their dignity in the presence of their colleagues, community or family. When done authentically, with genuine intention and empathy, the act of saving face for someone can strengthen relationships and build trust between parties.

However, often we believe we are saving face, when, in fact, we are practicing behaviors that do more harm than good. It’s for this reason that understanding what face is not is as important as understanding what it is.

Saving face is not:

Conflict avoidance. For many people, conflict is uncomfortable. They feel it is more comfortable to ignore conflict, minimize it, or sweep it under the rug — and they may feel that these actions are just “saving face” for everyone involved.

But, in reality, the effect is the opposite. Not addressing conflict can fuel resentments among team members, as well as resentment toward the leaders who are not addressing the conflict. Ignoring a problem only makes it worse.

Saving face, on the other hand, takes courage. It is a vulnerable, brave act to publicly address an issue when it comes up. Getting issues on the table and working through them constructively fosters a healthy culture. And if you follow the tenets of saving face, which include acting with empathy and authenticity, conflict resolution can actually help build stronger relationships and trust.

To address conflict on-the-spot requires an absence of ego. Steve Jobs, who was well known for embracing a culture of constructive, lively debate at Apple, was once quoted as saying, “I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.” Instead of glossing over a moment of conflict, Jobs preferred to put ego aside and work through it. Even if he “lost,” the team “won.”

Tolerating bad behaviors or poor performance. When conflict avoidance is taken to an extreme, it often manifests as the avoidance of an entire person. Instead of addressing poor performance or bad behaviors head on, managers sometimes ignore or excuse them, often creating ineffective workarounds that add to everyone else’s workloads.

The manager might believe they are “saving face” by working around this person’s misgivings, instead of addressing them directly. But, instead, they are forcing other workers to pick up the slack, increasing the stress and resentment of an entire team.

Safe talk/Lip service. We all know the phrase “beat around the bush,” and the connotation is never positive. People can tell when other people are being inauthentic.

Saving face does not mean you dance around an issue, or drop hints to avoid confrontation and minimize discomfort. At best, the hints are never received. At worst, they result in mixed messages, confusion, frustration and resentment.

Covering up your own mistakes and avoiding accountability. When mistakes happen, take ownership of your actions. Do not point fingers at others. It takes integrity and courage to own up to your own mistakes and take actions to correct them. That’s leadership.

Being blunt or rude. We often praise “straight talk” and “brutal honesty” as desirable qualities in strong leaders, but these are too often expressed as blunt meanness devoid of tact or empathy. As researcher Brene Brown says, “Cruelty is cheap, easy, and rampant.”

Clarity doesn’t have to mean cruelty. It takes more deliberate thought, care and courage to address someone with clarity that is fueled by empathy. Be intentional with your words, always mindful of preserving the dignity of all parties involved — that is saving face.