Saving Face: How Leaders Can Preserve Dignity and Build Trust

In Western culture, the expression “saving face” usually means that someone is trying to protect their own interests or reputation. But in Eastern culture, the phrase carries a different meaning.

“Saving face, in American slang, seems self-serving,” globally recognized author and leadership coach Maya Hu-Chan shared at a recent webinar in our Alchemizing HR series. “But, it’s not about covering up your mistakes or avoiding accountability.” Saving face, she said, is an intentional and authentic act designed to create a positive outcome for everyone involved.

“Face” permeates all levels and social interactions. It’s in the center of how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you, and it dictates your interactions with other people. Most conflicts arise from how people deal with each other in terms of face. 

Here’s how to “save face” and lead your teams with dignity and respect.

Learn to Save Face

To cultivate belonging and build innovative companies, employees need to feel heard at work. But only 30% of employees think their opinions matter, Hu-Chan said in her presentation. Honoring face, which she suggested is the social currency of our time, can close this gap. When interacting with employees — especially in situations such as performance reviews, where they risk losing face — you need to submit enough deposits to cover the withdrawal. “Don't call people out, call them in,” Hu-Chan said.

For example, don’t just point to inadequacies. Praise their strengths and instill confidence in their potential to continually improve. This is what “saving face” is all about: Leaders must be mindful of the impact their decisions, words and actions have on workers. When you need to address something negative, create an environment that allows the team to focus on the problem. Display humility and emotional intelligence, and signal trust. When everyone can save face, you can move past the discomfort of the personal dynamics to focus on solutions.

Create Psychological Safety

A critical component of any functional team is psychological safety. In fact, research conducted by Google’s Project Aristotle found that psychological safety was the most critical component of an effective team. It’s just as important in saving face. Hu-Chan derives her definition of psychological safety from leadership expert Amy Edmondson, who defines it as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Psychological safety is a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. 

A lack of psychological safety causes people to freeze up or even to leave. This is especially common among diverse groups, who often don’t feel like they can safely express themselves or their ideas. “Many of my clients have shared with me that they lost some really valuable employees because of that,” Hu-Chan said. But saving face through psychological safety can help you create a sense of belonging. A safe environment helps your workforce thrive and increases creativity and collaboration.

Practice the AAA Model

Hu-Chan’s AAA model for cultural agility can help you foster a safe culture for your team. The AAA model has three components:

  • Aware: Be aware of the biases and assumptions you might be bringing to the situation

  • Acquire: Put yourself in the other person’s position and cultivate empathy

  • Adapt: Modify your behaviors to create a positive outcome

To illustrate the model in action, Hu-Chan told the story of an American leader in Singapore speaking with a local employee. When the employee made a business suggestion, the American leader told him it was a “no-brainer” — a Western phrase the Singaporean employee had never heard before and perceived as an insult. 

The AAA model is especially important in cross-cultural interactions like this. The American leader intended no harm but still caused the employee to lose face. If he had stopped to consider, he could have 1) become aware that certain phrases are culturally vague, 2) acquired empathy by putting himself in the employee’s position, and 3) adapted his phrasing to save face. “When leaders develop this muscle, you'll be able to help people save face in a positive way,” Hu-Chan said.