Question: “I have a co-worker who often refuses to admit errors, even when proof is presented. This intensifies the original conflict.  What is the motivation behind that behavior?”

Sometimes, when people voice their points of view on an issue, they often cling to that position, even when they realize it may be invalid, because changing their minds can result in face loss. Face-saving behaviors are birthed by the human need to protect self-esteem and gain peer approval.

Backing away from a stance, especially when it has been solidly espoused, may be viewed as wishy-washy or lacking confidence.  When people are threatened with a loss of face, they believe their identity is threatened and their future contributions may be discounted.

People who experience face loss feel inadequate, humiliated, and powerless, and these feelings may cause them to retaliate.  The threat of losing face adds another dimension to the conflict because it takes the focus off the real issue.  Before the original problem can be resolved, the secondary matter must be addressed.  Face-saving is elusive because people are reluctant to acknowledge that their identity is being threatened.

Helping people save face is a significant factor in resolving conflicts because it can help them maintain their self-image.  Rigidity is a deterrent to conflict management, so managers are wise to ask questions and seek clarifications that would afford the parties an opportunity to gracefully retract or restate statements or expectations.  Managers who understand the importance of face saving can create a safe atmosphere that alleviates humiliation, affirms feelings, and assists with creative resolutions to the conflict situation.