How Saving Face Can Render You Shirtless

by Sep 19, 2019Get on Board

If something or someone seems too good to be true, it probably is. Bob, an Executive Vice President, was a master of spin. So good at it, his boss didn’t realize the myriad problems he was hiding and the toxic culture he fomented, until just before he was removed. How was his boss fooled for as long as he was? How did Bob’s boss not see what was obvious to many others?

First, dishonesty can be surprisingly hard to detect.

Bob was a master of saving face. So fearful of appearing foolish, he had developed exceptional skills at covering up even minor missteps. The sort of things that most people can readily admit, correct, apologize for and move on, were so untenable that he developed tremendous skills of cover-up. By the time he was fired, the trail of misrepresentations and falsehoods had become, collectively, too much.

Often, we think of dishonesty in dramatic terms, but sometimes it is a series of small things. A lie that seems small at first can snowball out of control. Once told, a lie must be remembered and guarded from discovery. Worse, people can become surprisingly comfortable repeating a falsehood, even if they are visibly distressed early on. Tell a story often enough, and it becomes reality.

Second, believing the unbelievable might be beneficial.

Human beings have a tremendous capacity for rationalization. Think for a moment about the number of people, and organizations, that trusted Bernie Madoff with their investments. Experienced people gave him control of assets, despite their suspiciously consistent returns. Yet, when the checks kept coming, the consistency became comforting, rather than a clue.

Belief in the unbelievable is even more powerful when others believe it, too. Social proof is a powerful aspect of influence (Cialdini) and can be used for great good, or to manipulate. Social proof can nudge people to contribute to worthy causes. Denzel Washington’s ads for Boys and Girls Clubs, for example, was a great marketing decision. Social proof does more than encourage particular actions, it comforts us once we do act. Knowing that we are doing something similar to another person, whom we admire, is comforting. It confirms to us that our judgment is good, even if we are mistaken.

Third, flattery sometimes works.  

Many successful people would deny and probably be insulted if they thought they had been naïve. One of the most common strengths claimed by leaders with whom I’ve worked is their ability to understand people. Even in organizations where poor hiring decisions are far too common, leaders persist in this belief. Who can blame them? No one likes to learn they have been fooled, but it can happen to the best among us. Affirmation is powerful.

Often, we think of dishonesty in dramatic terms but sometimes it is a series of small things. Click To Tweet

The shortcut to keeping your shirt and your face.

The way to avoid being taken in, and the path to extract yourself if you are, is short but requires self-control and honesty with oneself. It involves managing ourselves, and we are the hardest people to manage, especially when working against the very natural drive to save face. Here are a few things that can help:

  1. Ask yourself if there is evidence to support the claims you are hearing. While there isn’t necessarily proof positive for everything, is the telling credible? Are there small signs of misrepresentation? Vagueness? Pay attention.
  2. Is there benefit in accepting a good story without evidence? Sometimes even smart people can be lazy. We can become weary of deliberate, cautious, analytical approaches, and for good reason, it costs us a lot of energy. Avoiding discomfort is not usually a conscious decision, but it guides behavior, nonetheless. If believing a story and making a decision to proceed with an idea is low risk, or carries a risk that is tolerable, by all means, move ahead.
  3. Decide to make yourself a subject of study. Slow down enough to think about your own thought processes. Reflect on occasions when you made a mistake. See if you recognize anything the current situation has in common with other times when you were misguided. Commit to slowing down enough to allow yourself to think about what may be influencing you in ways that are just outside of your awareness.
  4. Be quick to admit error. The benefits of honesty, without spin or smoke, are profound. Trust is enhanced by honesty and little is achieved without trust.
  5. Abandon your rescue fantasies. The best way to stay out of traps laid by others, intentional or not, is to watch what people do. How do they affect others? Bad behavior that is consistent across time and circumstance, is not coachable by you or anyone else. A client said to me, “We hire people for what they know and fire them for who they are. If only we did a better of job knowing who they are.”

The common denominator amongst leaders who are both successful and of admirable character, which ultimately fuels even more success, is that they are honest with themselves. Charlie Munger, longtime colleague of Warren Buffet, has elevated the practice of challenging himself, to a near art form. He doesn’t believe his own press, and by the way, doesn’t believe yours either. Far from error-free investing, the fund Buffet and Munger oversee has made errors in judgment, which they do not deny or hide. Their candor makes them more admirable, not less.

All strategic decisions carry risk, yet leaders often minimize or dismiss risk. Some attempt to hide mistakes, losses, and anything they think will smudge their reputation. It takes maturity and courage to lead while being human.