How Does Face Work in Asia?

All groups and cultures have ways to show respect. There are ways to express appreciation in which no one becomes a target, and that allow people to be humble and gracious in response. This kind of appreciation is a way of giving face.

Cultures throughout Africa, Central and South America, parts of Europe, and the Middle East often show a highly developed concern with getting and giving face. In Asia, face is extremely nuanced. The Chinese, Korean and Japanese are acutely aware of several aspects of face. They think of:

  • Having face
  • Saving or maintaining face
  • Being given face
  • Losing face
  • Maintaining and giving face to others

In China, where face is called mianzi, it means having dignity, having the respect of people in the organization and the community. Face also means effectiveness. The more face a person has, the more effective that person will be.

Not only do Asians think about their own face, they are also concerned about the face of the organization, which includes key members who are points of unity for each group. This orientation contrasts with typical Western cultures, which are primarily concerned with an individual losing face. Losing face in the West is considered similar to being humiliated. But a typical Asian sees face as much more complex.

In traditional Asian families, for example, children are taught early to care about face because their face is also the family face. If they do something wrong or bring shame to themselves, they also bring shame on the family, the community, the nation, and as adults, to their workplaces.

Giving face in the organization
An effective leader who pays attention to face will take the time to create harmonious relations among co-workers and to build confidence through appreciative support. This helps everyone maintain and gain face.

Giving face starts with professionally demonstrating genuine confidence in each person. Employees who believe their leaders have confidence in them increase their own sense of confidence. They also feel more indebted and closer to the leader.

Effective leaders give people face without singling anyone out for undue praise. They give face through:

  • Giving sincere compliments, both one-on-one and in public, often for whole groups since people seldom succeed by themselves
  • Conferring a sense of dignity, such as placing people in seats of honor
  • Using apologies as a social lubricant to build trust and rapport
  • Treating people at every level of the organization with respect

When people are being given face, many respond with humility by deflecting compliments, saying “It is nothing” or “Please don’t thank me.” Often they acknowledge the help of others. Experienced leaders recognize such self-effacing behavior as culturally-appropriate modesty.

Activities outside work which include people at different levels of the organization also help build and maintain face. Leaders can learn about the families of co-workers and, when it is most needed, do something to help. If appropriate, invite small groups home. During leisure time, have fun together. In some Asian countries, work groups take trips together for a short vacation or long weekend.

There are many kinds of face-giving support leaders can offer in organizations. Effective leaders do them routinely. Some recognized strategies which give an organization face are:

  • Including top executives and government officials in public ceremonies (such as a grand opening) to build credibility.
  • Hosting an open house (annually or semi-annually) for employees, their families and friends and other community members.
  • Taking time to help individuals resolve conflicts in face-saving ways in order to foster harmony in the organization.
  • Giving one-on-one coaching, anticipating problems and rehearsing effective ways to resolve them.
  • Setting up opportunities for exposure to senior leaders.
  • Offering skills development opportunities and training.
  • Making sure individuals who perform or present in public will succeed.
  • Making resources available, such as extra personnel during crunch times, training or development, and access to information and data.
  • Freeing up special project funding.
  • Facilitating introductions to senior people in the organization and to professionals in the worldwide network.

True leaders know that their success and the success of the organization depend on the effectiveness of the people in the organization. Success also depends on the dignity and respect that people outside are willing to give the organization. Building, maintaining, giving, and receiving face are core strategies in developing a foundation of trust and confidence that strengthens everyone during times of challenge.

How Does Appreciation Help?

Giving respect and appreciation is a choice. You can choose to appreciate what is good in your colleagues and yourself. You can choose to enjoy people fully, foibles and all. How? Learn to see beyond temporary difficulties, style conflicts, cultural differences and “push back.” Choose to see things that can be appreciated in a situation or in people. Observe people—both new hires and long-time employees—and try to catch them at what they do well. Don’t only appreciate people for what they do but also for who they are.

Soon you will begin to notice how people who feel sincerely respected and appreciated seem especially confident and motivated. Well-grounded respect from leaders and colleagues builds self-assurance and commitment toward others. People who know that you respect them are more willing to go the extra mile and do what needs to be done. They come to work with energy in their step and with a light heart. It can make work fun!

The power of verbal appreciation
One of the easiest and most effective ways to build relationships is by expressing appreciation for people and their work. Leaders can offer simple, sincere, and specific comments which are based on what they see going on in the organization. Genuine appreciation based on real evidence can make a big difference in motivating individuals and groups to creatively resolve problems.

Verbal appreciation at appropriate times helps build confidence, making people feel more and more capable. Especially new hires. People may be capable, but they cannot know for sure that others see this unless their abilities are verbally recognized.

Effective leaders tell people they work with what a wonderful and important job they are doing. They comment on:

  • What people do well
  • How hard people work
  • How much people care

We are always looking at some level for assurance and reassurance that we are OK—even those of us who are tough and serious on the outside. Offering approval and praise, with a positive tone of voice and sincere facial expression, makes an impact on people whoever they are. On-going appreciation by leaders builds relationships in an organization wherever it is.

How can we give respectful appreciation?
Early in relationships we often don’t fully trust each other. We may not feel safe with one another. Initially, trust is about possibilities. The evidence is not there yet. Still, it is possible to demonstrate respect and give others face, thus laying the foundation for trust in the future.

Harvard Business School professor and management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter observes that sincere and meaningful support can generate confidence and trust. But she stresses that appreciation needs to be based on real evidence. “Confidence is a situational expectation—expectation of a positive outcome. . . .[But] a pep talk without evidence is empty, and people see right through it.”

The first step in cultivating a respectful, appreciative outlook is to begin talking about what is truly going well. Appreciative comments need to be about things that have really happened, such as:

  • Aspects of the organization that are going so smoothly people tend to forget them
  • Genuine possibilities for the group
  • Real progress in what people are doing and how they are doing it (their attitude, behavior and skills).

For many relationship- and group-oriented people, appreciation from seniors, elders and company leaders is the quickest path to confident and effective action. Many people look for approval from from figures of authority. Effective leaders show confidence in the people around them. In return, people believe that they can do what they are asked to do—and in fact they often go far beyond what anyone had imagined possible.

[If leaders are considered a good judge of success, then a leader’s confidence in a person can be relied on meaning of this sentence not clear]. Authority figures who observe respectfully and express approval appropriately instill confidence in people. In addition, one-on-one relationships that grow in an atmosphere of appreciation and respect build trust on both sides. Both sides become confident that they can ask for and receive guidance and cooperation from each other.

Every culture has barbed names for the act of overdoing appreciation to gain favor: “brown nosing” or “shining someone’s shoes” or “kissing ass” or “patting the horse’s ass”. But if appreciation and respect are given sincerely for things that have really happened and for genuine qualities people display, they are the foundation of satisfying relationships, both one-on-one and in groups. The confidence and community that grow when people feel appreciated can provide the internal strength to go forward and do something new.