Seems like this topic has been cropping up in various convos this week, so I want to get your input on it. I’ve heard different versions of basically the same story from numerous people (both Taiwanese and expats.) It goes like this…
A Taiwanese boss screws up or is somehow offended, maybe something minor, or something of consequence. Regardless, when the issue comes to light, the boss does one or more of the following.
- Flies into a blind rage, finds a scapegoat to chew out, perhaps piles on a little public humiliation to boot. Maybe even fires someone.
- Points the finger and plays the blame game. Passes the buck and pins the problem on someone. Heads will roll.
- Denial, level OJ Simpson. Acts as if the problem doesn’t exist. Ignores the situation. Problem? What problem?
From what I have observed in Taiwan, saving face is of supreme importance, especially when there are well defined hierarchical levels at play. So a boss (or person in a superior position) who deflects responsibility for a mistake by throwing her employee under the bus believes to have saved face, but has she?
The larger truth is that those observing the situation see exactly what is going on. The boss is fronting. The mistake is glaring. But acknowledging the boss’ error would be far too shameful. It’s the perfect recipe for the classic elephant in the room. Despite all of this, the fall guy takes his blows and attempts to amend the situation. No one dares step out of line in the pecking order. In fact, everyone is expected to collude to maintain the unspoken pact.
This face saving circus can be extraordinarily trying for Americans who have Taiwanese managers or supervisors. I realize calling it a circus is disparaging, so let me clarify. There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of saving face in Asian cultures, however, it becomes a circus in my book when truths are distorted and managers are absolved of responsibility or sound decision making. It’s a circus when reasonable solutions are discarded in favor of lunacy. When saving face results in workers being unjustly demoted, fired, or handed pay cuts and other punishments “to make an example of them” or “to show them who’s boss.”
Americans believe to err is human. We admire a person of any rank who admits to a mistake and accepts responsibility for it. We believe it is courageous to show our vulnerability and our faults, knowing we will be judged and criticized for them. While it takes fortitude to face the music, Americans view displaced anger, blame and denial as cowardly and childish. Certainly these would not be regarded as traits of a leader.
Because the saving face concept is not so entrenched in American culture, experiencing the wake of a Taiwanese boss’ temper tantrum, and worse, being expected to play along as a subordinate whipping boy to preserve the superior’s face, feels abhorrently unacceptable to most (possibly all?) Americans.
I say it can be trying for Americans, but it’s a rough ride for Taiwanese people too. My Taiwanese friends express outrage and indignation when their workplaces have been brutalized by face saving circus clowns. Even so, they fear the wrath of their supervisors and managers at work, and are more resigned to “the way it is.” They wisely realize they are very likely to encounter the same asshole boss at the next job and the next.
I personally feel, to use the sage words of legend Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” I avoid asshole bosses by being happily self-employed. What do you do when the face-saving circus comes to town? How do you deal with asshole bosses? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories on this topic. I invite you to share in the comments.
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