As an executive coach, I have worked with leaders around the world. I have shared with them a concept that resonates with leaders at all levels. It’s so essential to their leadership, but it’s also counterintuitive. It’s the concept of face. Today, I would like to explore two keys to applying the concept of face; authenticity and accountability. To save face successfully requires authenticity and accountability. This means understanding the other person’s frame of reference without judgment and taking thoughtful actions to produce positive outcome for everyone involved.

One of my clients, Dan, described an authentic act of saving face he witnessed while working for a global company. Dan was hired by the company’s financial director, Jeff, who was facing a crisis. Under his watch, a frontline employee had stolen over $100,000 in an eight-month period. As financial director, Jeff had designed and deployed the entire cashflow system that allowed this employee to commit the fraud undetected. An optimistic and trusting person, Jeff had included minimum anti-fraud and anti-theft controls in the design. It was a high profile case and it was discussed not only in security meetings, but also spread quickly throughout the company. Dan said to me, “When the theft was revealed and the scope of it ballooned with each day of the investigation, my boss felt entirely responsible and personally victimized.” It was an example of losing face.

Soon, the company’s COO planned a meeting with Dan and his manager, Jeff. The stress consumed Jeff. He lost weight, lost sleep, and developed anxiety. When the day arrived, Dan and Jeff waited nervously in a conference room. The COO walked in. Jeff’s dread and anxiety were impossible to ignore. The COO broke the tension with one sentence. “I don’t care about the theft.” He continued to say that, “Theft is unavoidable, whether one runs a hotdog stand or a multinational company.” The company was insured and would be made whole. The COO said, “I only want to know that you plan to review the process and fix it. And you seem well on your way, from what I can see.” Dan reported that Jeff’s demeanor immediately brightened. He returned to his job with renewed energy. The COO had saved his face and instilled accountability in him. And the COO did so authentically.

1. He was firm, but kind. Saving face requires having the other person’s best interest in mind, understanding their perspective, and delivering constructive feedback. He holds Jeff accountable without demeaning his self-worth.

2. He was intentional. When having emotionally delicate conversations, start with the end goal in mind. Ask, what is my intention? What do I want to achieve? Stating your intention creates openness and breaks down barriers.

3. He helped Jeff overcome shame and embarrassment quickly and refocus his energy on solving the problem and moving forward. He showed Jeff, ‘I trust you. I have confidence in you to do the right thing.’

Saving FaceMy book, Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust, illustrates how we can honor face to create positive first impressions, avoid causing others to lose face, and, most importantly, help others save face to build trust and lasting relationships inside and outside the workplace.

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