Saving Face

A couple days ago I was working on incorporating feedback from a second round of technical reviews into my (hopefully soon to come!) book on outsourcing. The topic that was keeping me awake was related to one of the most important dimensions of managing distributed teams – communication. Let me cover one of the aspects of this topic here since I am not planning on including it in the book. This aspect is in particular important for companies with little experience in cross-cultural communications and casual work environment.

It seems that it was not so long time ago even though more than a decade has passed from a great offsite meeting my company arranged for our large implementation team in Napa Valley. The meeting was a huge success with a bunch of engaging discussions, productive breakout sessions, and provoking brainstorming exercises. Needless to say the location promoted a fun celebratory activities as well. By 9 PM the soberest members of the team were rather tipsy, the rest of us were feeling no pain. That’s when one of my brightest tech leads run to me asking for help. Sanjiv was rather disturbed, confused and irritated. “Nick, Jennifer [[one of our company execs]] just offered me a blow job! I don’t know what to say, what to do… She is obviously an executive but I am married!” Having lived most of his life in India Sanjiv was quite accustomed to large parties, but not to the likes of that one. Nor did he know the name of a popular then cocktail which Jennifer so “innocently” offered to him. It took a little of explanation and forced laughter to get Sanjiv back to normal but I am afraid the damage was done – while there was no sexual harassment in sight, there was obviously a case of making someone look stupid in front of his friends and co-workers.

Over the course of my career and 20 some years of working with international crowd I have seen countless examples of people being put in a position similar to the one I just described. Often without any malicious intent. “Losing one’s face” is an exceptionally traumatic and painful experience in many nations around the world, in particular in Asian countries. Whether you are dealing with an executive from a large Japanese company or with a developer from a small vendor in China you need to be aware of the concept “saving face”. Causing someone to “lose face”, even by accident, can result in significant negative consequences, often far more severe than you might expect based on “minuscule” scope of the “accident”. What might seem microscopic to you might be of gigantic importance for your counterpart.

Here are just a couple of examples of “losing face” –

  • A senior developer from your offshore team comes onsite and on one of those days checks in code the breaks the build. Your local team has a friendly humiliation procedure for such an insidious crime, now he has to wear a t-shirt with “hit me, I am a build-breaker” for entire day. He does, and in a couple days quits.
  • To establish a better “team spirit” you decide to give everyone a nickname. A brilliant junior developer, an IIT grad, gets to be called Jay Lo since his name seems to be so close to it. He laughs along with everyone and submits his resignation.
  • You make a really funny innocent joke about your vendor’s senior executive at a dinner party. He laughs more than anyone, pats you on the back – you really nailed it buddy — and later on makes it practically impossible for you to work with his company.

As a matter of fact consequences could be even more severe especially if you keep in mind old proverb “revenge is a dish best served cold”.

Here a few tips that should help you minimize the chances of getting someone to lose their face:

  • Never point out someone’s mistakes in public.
  • Be extremely careful with humor.
  • Be cognizant of “power distance” and relative position of the person in organization.
  • Stay professional even in casual settings.
  • Err on “higher respect” side, especially with elders, and people of rank or authority.
  • Avoid accusing anyone of lying or wrongdoing in public.
  • Allow, if situation permits, people to pay for dinner or accept their gifts

And of course keep your face and don’t give anyone an opportunity to make you lose it ;)

One thought on “Saving Face

  1. It is useful to recognize that this is a fundamental social construct, and not just a business norm in societies that have a high Power/ Hierarchy index. And often, social stature and positioning of individuals is closely tied to their job titles as well as the companies they work for. Remembering this can be extremely useful in negotiations and creating win-win.

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