Research consistently shows that the top reason people leave their jobs isn’t related to compensation, benefits, or even opportunities for career growth: It is that they don’t feel appreciated.

Recently, I’ve been writing about the Asian cultural concept of saving face, and how, when employed authentically, it can strengthen relationships and serve as cultural currency. But giving face can also help create a culture of respect and appreciation, one that can help you retain your best people – and get the best out of them.

Two of my clients have recently had experiences that illustrate how crucial face can be to showing appreciation, building trust, and retaining your best talent.

A shift in perspective

Martha and Beth are colleagues and equal partners working on a strategy project for their company. Martha perceives Beth as not delivering on her end of the work. She feels Beth expects her to do all the work. Martha says Beth holds meetings with others “just to build connections,” but shows no tangible results from the meetings. In all, Martha suspects Beth doesn’t know how to do the strategy work but doesn’t want to admit it. She says she is saving face for Beth and protecting her credibility.

From Beth’s perspective, Martha is pushy, dominant, and not sensitive to others’ wellbeing. In meetings, Martha asks questions, but her tone is condescending: “What are your priorities? What resources do you have? Can you get it done?” Beth feels like she’s drowning, but Martha is not offering help or guidance – she’s only taking over the work for Beth.

For Beth to feel respected and appreciated, Martha needs to shift her perspective, realizing that a more collaborative approach will lead to a more productive, positive working relationship. Martha’s goal shouldn’t be to win or “be right” – she should realize that she and Beth are working towards the same end goal.

I encouraged Martha to be a thought partner to Beth, to frame the project’s success as their success. Her approach to communication shifted. Instead of asking questions like, “When will you get this done?” she emphasized collaboration, support, and a win/win for all: “What would be your top three priorities for Q2 that will bring a big win for you and your team?” “How can I support you?”

I also encouraged Martha to relate to Beth on a more human level, to show genuine interest in her life outside of work. This shift in communication style resulted in Beth feeling safer, less “underwater,” and appreciated. In these ways, Martha started to truly save face for Beth.

Moving on from a mistake

Carl is a highly successful leadership consultant. Several years ago, Carl worked for a consulting firm that served the private equity industry. The firm was preparing feedback on an organizational audit, which included evaluations on the effectiveness of each member of the executive team. Carl was tasked with compiling the aggregate results.

Unfortunately, when Carl forwarded the information to the client, he provided a spreadsheet rather than a PDF – this allowed more technologically savvy members of the executive team to trace back the feedback to the individuals that provided it, completely exposing them and violating confidentiality agreements.

Carl’s error threatened to jeopardize the entire project and the client’s trust in them as partners. “I remember the feeling like it was yesterday,” he recalls. “I remember walking in the door of my house, saying to myself, ‘I’m going to get fired, I’m going to get fired.'”

Fortunately, the company’s IT team was able to recall the message and destroy the data before it could get into more hands. Carl accepted full accountability. While the company CEO was forgiving, the private equity partner was not. He called Carl’s manager and demanded he be fired. His manager stood up for him, asserting his value on the team.

Carl continued through to the end of the project, but everything had changed. During later face-to-face sessions, the private equity partner would not make eye contact with him.

Carl soon left the firm and feels the experience left a scar. “My suspicion has always been that sooner or later, the managing director of our firm would have let me go. He’d protected me externally, but he no longer believed in me as a strong A-player,” he says.

The truth is, Carl was an A-player who had simply made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes – it’s how we respond to those mistakes, as managers, that affect a worker’s later performance. Carl’s firm did not help him feel supported. They could not help him save face, and for that reason, they could not retain him.

If we want to retain our best talent and help them do their best work, we must build them up rather than belittle them. We must help them save face and learn from it when mistakes inevitably happen. Because retaining great talent is about more than compensation – it’s about respect, support, and face.

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