When Saving Face Leads to Poor Decisions and Bad Leadership

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The importance of saving face in Asian cultures has been well documented, and Americans planning to work in Asia are often advised to get familiar with the concept.

But let’s be real. Americans are pretty OK with saving face, too.

A trusted boss early in my career taught me the truth of this, and I’ve been grateful ever since. Leaving people an out is often the right, wise, and humane thing to do.

When it pays to let someone save face

Take the day I received an angry email message from a senior manager (who had copied his manager) that he hadn’t gotten his bonus pay, so where was it? He KNEW his manager had forwarded the paperwork to payroll!

I could have been tempted to correct this manager that he certainly had received his bonus, because I’d processed the entry and put the pay statement in the mail myself. But no; instead I asked a question because hey, stuff happens, even to a**holes:

Hi ______,

When you say you haven’t received your bonus, are you saying the money hasn’t been deposited into your account, or are you saying you haven’t received the paper statement? If the former, I’ll double check with your bank, because this week I processed and verified the payroll myself, and your bonus was included. If it’s the latter, please know that I mailed the statement yesterday and it may take a few days to reach your home.

Now, let’s think about this for a moment.

The employee couldn’t have been complaining that he’d received the money but no statement yet, because who the hell would care about that?

Putting out another fire

So, I already knew there was a good chance this person (a nasty bully who seemed to relish embarrassing people in public) hadn’t checked his damn bank balance, but I saw no reason to embarrass him by pointing that out or by stating the obvious — no paper statement in the mail is not the same thing as no money in the bank.

Well, waddaya know? After getting my response, the employee admitted he hadn’t reviewed his balance before shooting off his mouth in an email message, and after that initial admission, I never heard from him again (on this particular matter, that is).

But that’s OK. Another fire put out quick, fast, and in a hurry. That’s all I care about.

Giving this employee the benefit of the doubt, and an out, rather than getting defensive — or, God forbid, advising him to check his account before making assumptions followed by accusations about who hasn’t done what — would have had no effect but to prolong an unpleasant interaction.

No thanks.

Allowing people to save face has its benefits for sure. But saving face has its dark side, too.

Decisions, decisions!

When someone cares a little too much about saving his own face, decision-making becomes clouded. In the worst case scenario, it becomes irrevocably compromised.

In Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions, authors Campbell, Whitehead, and Finkelstein present research indicating that even good leaders can make abysmal decisions in the presence of three “red flag conditions.” Topping the list? “Inappropriate self-interest.”

(The others are “distorting attachments” and “misleading memories,” and those are fascinating to talk about as well, but I’m going to focus on the self-interest piece today.)

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Campbell et al first published their research in 2009. I think it’s more relevant today than ever.

More data to make decisions on

Why? Because we’re fielding more data than ever, and that means we have more stuff to sift through when making decisions.

In other words, decision-making is getting more and more complicated. And when things get complicated, people get stressed.

And when people get stressed, sometimes they begin to focus on themselves and their stress (even if unconsciously), and what certain outcomes would mean for them, personally — rather than what it might mean for the department, division, or organization as a whole — and that’s when “inappropriate self-interest” and the desire to save face rears its big old ugly head.

I’ll be honest; I’m as versed in CYA as the next worker, but I don’t have a whole lot of patience (and hardly any respect) for a leader who’d rather protect her self-image than solve a flippin’ problem.

It’s counter-productive, it’s cowardly, and it doesn’t exactly inspire trust.

Don’t be a sissy!

So, sure — when the price is low and the benefit is high, do what you can to help someone else save face.

But when the cost is high (say, a boatload of money or someone else’s conscious), saving face (yours or the next guy’s) is for the damn birds.

Apologize. Admit you could have made a mistake. Admit that new information does indeed change things.

In other words, grow up and grow a pair, already.

That’s the kind of leadership I can respect.

What about you?

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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