Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust


Develop Your Ability to Influence

If want to be a great leader, it’s not only about hitting your goals. Great leaders are constantly working to develop their ability to influence and inspire others.

And Maya Hu-Chan’s new book, SAVING FACE: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust is full of ways for leaders to:

  • Increase your positive influence
  • Become a more empathetic and self-aware leader
  • Honor and recognize other’s dignity
  • Consider different perspectives and become a more inclusive leader
  • Understand the motivation of others

I encourage you to learn her definition and concept of “saving face” which will immediately give you a number of tools to take your relationships to the next level.

Maya Hu-Chan is a management consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker, and founder of Global Leadership Associates. After reading her fascinating book, I reached out to learn more about her work.



You start your book explaining that many of your coaching clients express needs differently, but it mostly comes down to saving face. What’s the Maya Hu-Chan definition of ‘saving face’?

As an executive coach and leadership consultant, I’ve worked with leaders around the world. I have shared with them a concept that resonates with leaders at all levels across different industries. It is so essential to their leadership, but it is also counterintuitive sometimes. It is the concept of FACE.

Face represents one’s self esteem, self-worth, identity, reputation, status, pride, and dignity.

Face is a universal concept, beyond its origins in China. It speaks to a deeper human need for dignity and acceptance, and the ways we grant dignity to one another.

Face permeates all levels of social and business interactions. When you hear someone say, “It’s not about the money,” the real issue is often about face.

When you experience problems in relationships, conflicts, motivations, teamwork, or lack of engagement, at its core, it often has to do with face. People may not actually say the words like, “I feel like I’ve lost face.” Much more likely they would say:

  • My boss doesn’t appreciate my work.
  • People don’t really treat my ideas seriously.
  • I am not being heard.
  • I don’t feel I belong.
  • I’ve been passed over for promotion even though I’ve been working so hard.

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.



Would you give us an example of losing face?

There is an old saying I remember hearing when I was growing up in Taiwan: Spilled water is hard to regain. When it comes to losing face, that phrase really has a lot of meaning.

Think about it—you accidentally knock a glass of water off the dining table and it spills all over the floor—if you wanted to get all that water back into the glass, how would you do it? More important, even if you managed to get all the spilled water on the ground back into the glass, at that point would you still want to drink it? Yuck. Me neither.

That “yuck” factor is the same when we’re talking about losing face. If you do or say something that causes someone else to lose face or to feel humiliated or diminished, it’s hard to completely reverse what you said or did; even if you could, the relationship has changed for the worse, at least in the short term.

Losing face is caused when something (or someone) provokes shame, fear, vulnerability, and a wide range of negative emotions in someone else. You can cause someone to lose face by giving negative feedback in public, challenging or disagreeing with them, failing to acknowledge proper hierarchy, engaging in subtle insults, ignoring or interrupting someone, making insensitive jokes, and more. We may cause someone to lose face and don’t even know it.

To illustrate this, I use Linda (not her real name) as an example. Linda is a manager at a software company. Slack is her main method of communicating, and she’d often use the platform to give direct feedback to specific team members—in full view of everyone else. Mistakes were pointed out, and her language was “brutally honest,” causing the people whose errors were broadcast to feel embarrassed and humiliated. She had started to create a fear-based culture, with the members of her team scared of making mistakes and losing face and credibility.

Linda’s intentions were noble—she was just acting out of efficiency. But the effect was harmful. As her coach, I gave her this critical feedback and she started taking all direct-feedback conversations offline and being mindful and intentional about her actions and impact. It took her six months to turn things around and rebuild trust and credibility with her team.



Why is saving face an important leadership skill?

Saving face is a universal concept that enables one to connect with people, break down barriers, and build trust and long-term relationships.

On the leadership front, managers, entrepreneurs, and even individual contributors must adapt to increasingly diverse clientele, workforces, and business partners. They need to attract, retain, and motivate teams and employees across distances, time zones, and cultural differences. They must move in many circles, think in many styles, and run their businesses as global citizens.

From a personal standpoint, the concept of saving face is of universal importance. Being able to relate to others, find commonalities, and work toward a common goal are all wrapped up in how each person understands and protects the face of others. No other motivator, including monetary compensation, can truly lead to optimal success in any group setting without considering face, and my book highlights how that is so.

The ability for people to save and build face is the social currency of our time. It is even more crucially important in today’s era of social media, where it is so easy to slight someone without the normal check and balance of having to actually confront them face-to-face with your slight.

More than ever, leaders must win the trust and respect of their counterparts. Building authentic and lasting human relations may be the most important calling for leaders in this century.



What are some basic ways to put saving face into action?

Saving face is far more than highlighting the importance of not embarrassing someone. It is also about developing an understanding of the background and motivations of others to discover the unique facets of face that each of us possesses. Without such an understanding, even the most well-intentioned individuals risk causing others to lose face without even knowing it.

The authentic act of saving face requires a positive intention and understanding others’ frame of reference without judgment. Without positive intention and acceptance, the act of saving face can be perceived as manipulative, superficial, or phony.

Maya Hu-Chan_Headshot_SAVING FACEAs an example of how to save face, I often share the story of Jeff, the finance director of a multinational company. Under Jeff’s watch, a frontline employee had stolen over $100,000 in an eight-month period. As Finance Director, Jeff had designed and deployed the entire cash flow process that allowed this employee to commit the fraud undetected.

An optimistic and trusting person, Jeff had included minimal anti-fraud and anti-theft controls in the design. Jeff felt entirely responsible and personally victimized.

Soon, the company’s COO planned a meeting with Jeff and his team. The stress consumed Jeff: He lost weight, lost sleep, and developed a bad rash.

When the day of the meeting arrived, the team waited nervously in a conference room. The COO walked in. Jeff’s dread and anxiety were impossible to ignore. The COO broke the tension with one sentence: “I don’t care about the theft.” He continued, “Theft is unavoidable, whether one runs a hotdog stand or a multinational company. The company was insured and would be made whole.”

The COO said, “I only want to know that you plan to review the process and fix it. And you seem well on your way, from what I can see.”

Jeff’s demeanor immediately brightened. He and the team focused on problem solving throughout the meeting. Jeff returned to his job with renewed energy. The COO had saved his face by:

  • Creating psychological safety, while holding Jeff accountable.
  • Being kind and firm. He chose his words carefully. He showed humility and emotional intelligence when dealing with an emotionally delicate situation.
  • Helping Jeff overcome shame and embarrassment quickly and re-focusing his energy on solving the problem and moving forward. He sent a clear message, “I trust you. I have confidence in you to do the right thing.”




As someone who does business around the world, I particularly love how you weave examples from your international experience throughout your book. Would you share a story of how saving face crosses borders?

There was an American manager, David, who recently emailed a remote worker in Japan to ask him to complete a project by a certain day. The worker immediately replied with just this: “No way.” David was taken aback. How could he be so dismissive and disrespectful? He started writing an angry response, but then stopped and took a moment to think. This employee had been on the team for a year, and had always been hard-working and polite, he thought. There must be something else behind those words. A quick phone call cleared it all up: The worker was facing two other deadlines that same week and wouldn’t be able to juggle all three. Why the curt reply? “I didn’t know it was rude. I see Americans doing that on TV shows and movies, and I wanted to be direct—like Americans!”

For David, knowing his audience would have been the first step. But he took the next step and gave someone the benefit of the doubt—seeking to understand before reacting with anger. It saved face for his employee and preserved the relationship.


How do leaders best prepare for these cultural differences and prepare for potential communication pitfalls?

In my book, I share an AAA model for cultural agility. AAA stands for Aware, Acquire, and Adapt.

  • Be AWARE of your own assumptions, behaviors, and bias.
  • ACQUIRE – seek to understand the other person’s frame of reference, put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • ADAPT – Adapt your mindset and behaviors, take thoughtful actions to produce positive outcome for everyone involved.



Your BUILD model is an excellent way to remember the concepts in the book. Is there one part of the model that leaders most struggle to learn?

I love this question, Skip!

The BUILD model illustrates five steps to save face:  Benevolence & Accountability, Understanding, Interacting, Learning, and Delivery.

Let’s go with the toughest part first. Benevolence & Accountability is the part leaders struggle with the most.  I specifically grouped “benevolence” and “accountability” together because without accountability, benevolence might leave the impression that lasting business or personal relationships depend on never challenging or correcting behavior in order to maintain harmony.  That just doesn’t work.  On the other hand, without benevolence and empathy (“I have your back”), accountability can create high anxiety and a fear-based team culture.  Leaders need to balance between accountability and benevolence, so they can foster a psychological safe environment for people to learn and flourish.

In any relationship between a manager and employee, employees naturally defer to and follow the instructions of their manager. However, the responsibility to support and nurture their subordinates isn’t taken nearly enough by managers. Without a manager’s benevolence toward their direct reports, it’s hard to develop a team with any sense of loyalty. If the relationship between manager and direct report or peer-to-peer is primarily a transactional one, meaning that they work together only to serve their own needs and not anyone else’s, there is very little cohesiveness. Benevolence, when applied in a workplace setting, is much more than just about being nice. But don’t get me wrong—it doesn’t necessarily mean having to do something big or costly either. The key is to put some thought into it and, most important, be genuine. It could be as simple as having some pizzas delivered when your team has to work late. Whatever you can do to practice benevolence, just do it and do it in a way that is meaningful to them. It’s something they will appreciate and remember.



For more information, see SAVING FACE: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust.



Photo credit: Dave Lowe

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