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Why Losing Face May Hurt Workplace Relationships

Monday, August 17, 2020
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Face is an intrinsic part of Asian culture, but it is also a concept with universal resonance. We have all felt the sting of losing face and the relief of saving it.

Face represents a person’s sense of self-esteem, self-worth, identity, reputation, status, pride, and dignity. In many Asian cultures, it extends deeper, defining a person’s status and reputation among family and friends, in business and politics, in local communities, and even in the nation at large.

For leaders, an awareness of face is crucial to cultivating positive workplace relationships and fostering psychological safety. It’s important that leaders are aware of the ways we can all—intentionally or otherwise—cause others to lose face.

Delivering Negative Feedback in Front of Others

People often personalize negative feedback, perceiving it as an attack on their character and a loss of face. It can send people into a fight-or-flight mode, which is especially magnified if the feedback is delivered in front of others.

In our current era of digital communication, it is easy to do this without the real-time feedback of face-to-face interaction.

My client, Linda, had been using Slack for all communication with her team, including when she delivered critical feedback to individuals in full view of everyone else. She thought she was saving time and being efficient, but her team members became afraid to take risks and make mistakes lest they lose face in front of others.

After realizing this, Linda continued to use Slack but only for general communication. For sensitive and critical feedback, she moved conversations off-line (and ideally face-to-face).

Critical feedback is crucial for growth, but to minimize lost face, leaders should deliver it privately and with language that protects the other person’s dignity and self-esteem.

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Microinequities

Microinequities are behaviors and actions that can make others feel excluded, singled out, and ignored—in other words, actions that can cause others to lose face. Some microinequities are overt, such as when someone makes subtle insults, ignores or interrupts another person, or makes insensitive jokes. Sometimes we’re unaware our behaviors are microinequities because our intentions behind the actions may be positive.

In a team of outspoken, extraverted individuals, a quiet, introverted person may be spoken over, interrupted, or ignored. An inside joke among colleagues may feel like a bonding moment but could exclude those not in on the joke. Similarly, workers may use acronyms and jargon with one another—a shorthand meant to save time but one that could leave new team members in the dark.

As leaders, we must raise our human antennas—our awareness of others’ feelings—and watch out for subtle and overt microinequities. Speak up if you notice such dynamics and encourage others to do the same. It’s everyone’s responsibility to co-create an inclusive and safe work environment.

Unawareness of Cultural Differences

A global technology company based in the United States recently asked me to work with five engineers visiting from Japan and South Korea for a week-long technical training. During the training, they remained quiet and never asked questions.

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During lunch the engineers reluctantly shared their concerns that the American instructor had given them a 200-page technical manual written in English that they had little time to review.

“How much of the training did you understand?” I asked.

“About 20 percent,” they replied.

Unbeknown to the instructor, the engineers were afraid to lose face. They wanted to appear confident and credible, and felt they couldn’t admit they were lost and confused. Their American colleagues weren’t deliberately trying to cause them to lose face, but that is exactly what happened.

I advised the instructor to provide hands-on demonstrations, slow down the pace, give the engineers time to process the information, and raise questions as a group. The tactics worked. The training was extended by a week, and it was a success.

When working with others from cultures different from your own, be aware of their norms and practices. See things from their perspective, and raise that human antenna of sensitivity, empathy, and awareness.

Repairing a relationship after face has been lost takes time, patience, and authenticity. If leaders value face, and the crucial role it plays in workplace relationships, they can foster a culture where it is built and honored rather than lost.

About the Author

Maya Hu-Chan was rated one of the world’s top eight global solutions thinkers by Thinkers50, and one of the World’s Top 30 Leadership Gurus in 2013.

Maya is the author of SAVING FACE: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust (Berrett-Koehler; June 9, 2020), and founder and president of Global Leadership Associates. She is a globally recognized management consultant, executive coach, and speaker. Hu-Chan was an anchor for the China Broadcasting Corporation in Taiwan, former CEO of a nonprofit organization in California, columnist for Inc., and coauthor of Global Leadership: The Next Generation. She has trained and coached thousands of leaders from Fortune 500 corporations, nonprofits, and public sectors in North America, Asia, Europe, Australia, and Latin America.

Maya was born and raised in Taiwan and lives in San Diego, California. She has worked with thousands of leaders in Global Fortune 500 companies around the world. To contact Maya Hu-Chan, please email her at [email protected], or visit her website at www.mayahuchan.com.

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