10 Ways to Allow Others to Save Face

A person's dignity is worth the world to them and nothing to you. Don't be the one to take it away.
March 04, 2013

"Never take a person's dignity: It's worth everything to them, and nothing to you," states Frank Barron, professor of psychology. Preserving one's dignity is the implied meaning in the expression, "to save face."

The phrase originated in China, where it is referred to as "lose face." Simply put, a person who loses face feels that his status is diminished and that he has lost the respect of others. In our harried schedules, it's easy to unwittingly cause someone to lose face in front of his or her peers. This can be caused by a dismissive gesture from a senior person, public criticism from a stressed boss or derision from a colleague, even if it was meant in jest. These are dispiriting incidents to the person on the receiving end.

In A Leader's Legacy, James Kouzes and Barry Posner point out, "We will work harder and more effectively for people we like. And we will like them in direct proportion to how they make us feel." Treating others with dignity and respect is not only the right thing to do—it's also the smart thing to do. A lot of productivity is lost with employees being consumed for the rest of the day after they have received a condescending email, or have been treated offhandedly in a meeting.

Being respectful lies at the heart of collaboration. Here are 10 tips to ensure that treating others with dignity and respect is more than lip service:

1. Don't hijack a subordinate's presentation. When you attend a subordinate's presentation, don't butt in and take over the conversation. If you must provide your input, do so, but be mindful of the person standing there. At some point, turn the focus back on her; at a minimum, allow her to provide the concluding remarks to her presentation. To you, these actions may seem insignificant, but they are not to the person who spent days preparing for the presentation. Many people feel vulnerable when making a presentation to peers or in front of their boss. In these anxiety-prone situations, the threat of losing face looms large.

Read More: 11 Easy Ways to Finally Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking 

2. Be mindful of the "Red Pen Syndrome." This is the irresistible urge to correct someone's work, even in insignificant details. One of your team members submits a report that he spent the entire weekend working on and you return the draft with a bunch of red marks for commas, or a rewritten sentence that could have easily stayed as is. This is unnecessarily deflating to the individual.

3. Stop using sarcasm so much. I once saw a bumper sticker that said, "I am not good at empathy. Will you settle for sarcasm?" There is a kernel of truth in this humorous sticker: It's impossible to be both empathetic and sarcastic at the same time. Empathy is valued currency in any relationship. When you set out to make a sarcastic remark, consider the effect it has on the person at the receiving end. A laugh at the expense of another is a cheap laugh.

4.  Make "respect" a corporate value. Whether you're managing a flower shop or a team of engineers, let everyone know that respecting others is nonnegotiable. Better still, add it to your performance review process—what gets measured, gets done. Above all, model the way yourself. As Michael Hyatt puts it in Leadership and the Law of Replication, "Like it or not, you will replicate yourself. Your followers will adopt your behaviors, habits, and—if you have a strong personality—even your mannerisms." Bad behavior at the top has a contagious effect.

5. Give feedback the right way. A good leader lets his people know what they did wrong without causing them to lose face. John W. Gardner gives us this insightful advice: "If you have some respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them to become better than they are." Provide corrective feedback that does not diminish the person, and you will achieve greater results in changing someone's behavior. (For tips on how to take the sting out of critical remarks, see my article, "The Criticism Sandwich: A Stale Idea.")

6. Allow those who lost an argument to save face. Neuroscientist David Rock states, "Many everyday conversations devolve into arguments driven by a status threat, a desire not to be perceived as less than another." When you win an argument, let the other person exit with grace. Be inwardly content that you won the round and move on. Watch out for the irresistible "I told you so" when someone fails because they didn't follow your counsel or adopt your proposal. In victory, especially, being magnanimous shows generosity of spirit.

Read More: How to Get Disengaged Employees to Go the Extra Mile  

7. Arrive to meetings on time. If you habitually show up late for meetings, you are sending a not-so-subtle signal to the person running the meeting that you don't respect him enough to be there on time.

8. Align your actions to your promises. Research shows that over two-thirds of customers leave a business not because of price or quality, but because of service—how a customer is treated when things are not going well is remembered long after the issue itself is forgotten. For example, if you have a policy that you accept returns of merchandise, is this done gracefully or in a begrudging manner? Be vigilant, in particular, of the classic response to a customer complaint: "This has never happened before." It's the type of response that can result in the customer walking out the door for good.

9. Assess your employees' behaviors toward all stakeholders. Take some time during your day to quietly observe how your managers treat their direct reports. If what you see gives you cause for concern, consider having everyone take a 360-assessment that can raise awareness. An example is The Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), which assesses 30 behaviors, one of which is, "Treats others with dignity and respect." Research shows that employees of leaders who score high on the LPI are significantly more engaged in their work than employees of leaders who score low.

10. Assess yourself. Christine Pearson, professor of Global Leadership at The Thunderbird School of Global Management, and author of The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging to Your Business, provides a 20-point checklist for disrespectful behavior in the workplace. If you answer "yes" to any of these, think about how you can eliminate them.

Research at the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University discovered that social or emotional pain is as real and intense as physical pain. The same brain networks are activated when a person experiences a physical injury as when they go through a painful emotional experience, such as feeling humiliated, or losing face. While a physical wound can be stitched and repaired, a social wound can linger invisibly for a long time. It can have adverse effects on employee morale and motivation, without your even being aware of it.  

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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