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In my book, “Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust,” I explore the dimensions of face, a concept that represents one’s self-esteem, self-worth, identity, reputation, status, pride, social standing and dignity. Our ability to save and build face for others is the social currency of our time.
We can also, often unintentionally, cause someone to lose face. This causes someone to feel shame, fear, guilt, and vulnerability. You may lose their trust, the relationship damaged.
Most of us don’t set out to cause others to lose face — a lack of awareness is usually to blame. Here are the top three ways we might be causing others to lose face, and how we can avoid it.
1. By giving negative feedback in front of others
In today’s era of social media, it is easy to slight someone without the check and balance of face-to-face interaction.
Linda (not her real name) recently received some difficult feedback. She had been using Slack for all communication, including delivering critical feedback to individual team members — in full view of everyone else.
She thought she was saving time and communicating efficiently, but it left her team members afraid to take risks and make mistakes, lest they lose face in front of everyone else. After realizing this, she continued to use Slack, but only for general communication. For sensitive and critical feedback, conversations are now offline (and ideally face-to-face).
2. By being unaware of cultural differences
I recently worked with a global technology company headquartered in the US. The company asked me to speak to five engineers who were visiting from China for a weeklong technical training. During the training, they sat quietly and never asked questions.
Over lunch, the engineers said little in English, but when I spoke to them in Mandarin, they opened up. One complained that the American instructor had given them a 200-page technical manual. They had no time to review it, and it was written in English.
“How much of the training did you understand?” I asked. “About 20%,” they replied.
Unbeknownst to the instructor, the Chinese engineers were afraid to lose face. They needed to appear confident and credible and did not want to admit that they were lost and confused. The US contingent wasn’t deliberately trying to cause the engineers to lose face, but that is exactly what happened.
I advised the instructor to provide a hands-on demonstration, slow down the pace and give the engineers time to process the information and raise questions as a group. They extended the training for one more week, and it was a success!
When working with others from cultures different from your own, and when English is not their native language, do your research and be aware of their norms and practices. See things from their perspective, and do your best to help them build — not lose — face.
3. By engaging in micro-inequities
Micro-inequities are behaviors and actions that can make others feel excluded, singled out or ignored.
Micro-inequities are actions such as delivering subtle insults, ignoring or interrupting someone, or making insensitive jokes. Some of these behaviors are often done with good intentions at best, carelessness at worst.
In a team of outspoken, extroverted individuals, a quiet, introverted person might be spoken over, interrupted or ignored. An “inside joke” among colleagues could exclude those not in on the joke, making them feel shut out and embarrassed. Or, workers might use acronyms and jargon with one another — team shorthand they all know. But that shorthand can leave new team members in the dark.
Self-awareness and empathy can go a long way. Be mindful of your actions and how they affect others. Speak up if you notice such dynamics. It’s everyone’s responsibility to co-create an inclusive and safe work environment.
Can you fix a broken relationship if you accidentally cause someone to lose face? The answer is yes, but it takes time, patience and authenticity.
Saving face means preserving dignity for all parties involved in order to reach a positive outcome. It requires that we put ourselves in another person’s shoes, understand their frame of reference, take thoughtful actions to navigate potentially harmful situations, and build real trust and long-term relationships in life and business.
Maya Hu-Chan is a globally recognized keynote speaker, author, leadership educator, and ICF Master Certified Coach. She is the president of Global Leadership Associates. She has authored two books, “Global Leadership: The Next Generation” and “Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust.” Learn more at her website.
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