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.

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