In a recent article, I described the Asian concept of “face” and discussed how it is a universal concept that serves as social currency in family, friendship and business.
In this article, I’d like to explore one of the keys to using face successfully: authenticity.
In business relationships, when you help someone “save face,” you help restore their dignity. You help them recover from a minor slight, an unintentional misstep, or a serious, embarrassing mistake. But you do more than that. You inspire their pride and loyalty.
But, to do so successfully requires authenticity. This means positive intention, empathy, understanding the other person’s frame of reference without judgment, and taking thoughtful actions to produce positive outcome for everyone involved.
Attempting to “save face” any other way could cause your attempt to be perceived as manipulative, superficial, or phony.
One of my clients, Dan Nesselroth, described an experience he witnessed while working for a global company. It is a wonderful example of an authentic act of saving face.
Dan was hired by the company’s Finance Director, who was facing a crisis. Under his watch, a frontline employee had stolen over $100,000 in an 8-month period. Dan’s manager had designed and deployed the entire cash flow process that allowed this employee to commit the fraud undetected. An optimistic and trusting person, he had included minimal anti-fraud and anti-theft controls in the design.
The case was a high profile one and was discussed not only in security meetings but also spread quickly through whispers throughout the company.
“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,” Dan says. “It was an example of ‘losing face.'”
Soon, the company’s COO planned a meeting with Dan and his manager. The stress consumed Dan’s boss: He lost weight, lost sleep, and developed anxiety.
“For days he felt like a dead man walking, perhaps made even worse by the hardline reputation the COO had,” Dan says.
When the day arrived, Dan and his boss waited nervously in a conference room. The COO walked in. His manager’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.
“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,” the COO said.
Dan reports that his manager’s demeanor immediately brightened. He returned to his job with renewed energy. The COO had saved his face.
But the COO did so authentically:
• He was firm but kind. Saving face requires having the other person’s best interest in mind, understanding their perspective, and delivering constructive feedback. The COO considered the circumstances before making decisions. Humanity is key. Ego is the enemy.
• He employed emotional intelligence. When he walked in the room, the COO was aware of the Finance Director’s stress level. He “raised his antenna” and reacted with empathy. He was respectful, choosing his words carefully. He didn’t make assumptions. He treated the Finance Director with decency.
• He was intentional. When having emotionally delicate conversations, start with the end goal in mind. Ask, “What is my intention? What do we want to achieve?” Stating your intention creates openness and breaks down barriers.
• He made the Finance Director feel worthy. The COO didn’t demean or embarrass him. Instead, he did the opposite — he recognized, in front of Dan, the work he had been doing to improve security measures. He acknowledged the finance director’s self worth and affirmed it.
• He helped the Financial Director overcome shame and embarrassment quickly and re-focus his energy on solving the problem and moving forward. He showed the financial director, “I trust you. I have confidence in you to do the right thing.”
Saving face is done authentically when you are intentional, respectful, and sensitive. Act with empathy and leave ego and judgment at the door. When you help someone save face in this way, you not only inspire loyalty — you bring out the best in them, having made them feel appreciated and valued.