Saving face is the act of helping someone recover after a mistake in a way that preserves their dignity in the presence of their colleagues, community or family. When it is done authentically, with genuine intention and empathy, the act of saving face for someone can strengthen relationships and build trust. However, often we believe we are saving face when, in fact, we’re practicing behaviors that do more harm than good. That’s why understanding what face is not is as important as understanding what it is.

1. Saving face is not conflict avoidance. For many people, conflict is uncomfortable. It’s easier just 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 resentment among team members, as well as resentment towards the leader who is 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 principles 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 was well known for embracing a culture of constructive, lively debate at Apple. He 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, Steve Jobs preferred to put ego aside and work through it. Even if he lost, the team won.

2. Saving face is not tolerating bad behaviors or poor performance. Instead of addressing poor performance or bad behaviors head on, managers sometimes ignore or excuse them. This often creates ineffective workarounds that add to everyone else’s workloads. The manager might believe they are saving face by working around this person’s misgivings. But instead, they are forcing other workers to pick up the slack, increasing the stress and resentment of an entire team.

3. Saving face is not lip service. We all know the phrase beat around the bush, and the implication is never positive. People can tell when someone is 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.

4. Saving face is not 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.

5. Saving face is not being blunt or rude. We often praise direct communication and brutal honesty as desirable qualities in strong leaders. But these are too often expressed as blunt meanness, lacking tact or empathy. As researcher Brene Brown says, “Cruelty is cheap, easy and rampant.” Saving face requires deliberate thought, care and courage to address someone with clarity that is fueled by empathy.

So remember, saving face is not conflict avoidance. It’s not tolerating bad behaviors or poor performance or lip service. Saving face is not covering up your own mistakes and avoiding accountability. And it’s not being blunt or rude. Be intentional with your words, always mindful of preserving the dignity of everyone involved, that is saving face.

Saving FaceMy book, Saving Face 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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