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Most of us have heard that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. Salary and benefits are of course important. But high on most everyone’s must-have list is respect. People want to be treated with dignity.

This isn’t touchy-feely stuff. It applies to loud and tough-minded people just as much as to the most soft-spoken introvert.

Relationships, someone once said, never die a natural death. They are murdered by ego, attitude and ignorance.

Maya Hu-Chan has some solid counsel that can help anyone in any role.

Founder and president of a global leadership development firm, she’s trained and coached thousands of people from a wide range of organizations in North America, Asia, Europe, Australia and Latin America. She’s the author of Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust.

In this conversation, Maya discusses some of the behaviors that produce strong relationships and enable people with diverse views and backgrounds to collaborate productively.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Despite plenty of public dialogue about empathy, inclusion, and related issues, a lot of leaders still seem to lack self-awareness regarding their treatment of others. What’s a good first step for a leader who’s genuinely determined to treat others with appropriate respect and dignity?

Maya Hu-Chan: A good starting point is the first step of my AAA model—aware, acquire, and adapt.

I like to use the metaphor of a human antenna. Imagine you’re using an old-fashioned radio. If the antenna is down, there’s no signal. You have very little input. When you raise the antenna, you receive more signals.

Research shows that 93% of communication is non-verbal. When you raise your “human antenna,” you not only hear what’s being said, you pick up on non-verbal cues—body language, facial expressions, tone. You receive more input and feedback and your awareness is heightened.

Being inclusive requires leaders to pay attention. Listen for what’s said and what’s not said. Be aware of your own assumptions, beliefs and biases, but also the context of what’s happening around you.

Duncan: Some people say the “political correctness” wave of recent years has turned them off because they feel others are trying to shame them into accepting values they might not otherwise embrace. What’s your view on the “PC” movement?

Maya Hu-Chan

Hu-Chan: This is an example of saving face for the wrong reason.

Sometimes being PC sounds like “safe talk”—evading the truth by dropping hints or beating around the bush, trying to minimize discomfort and avoid conflict. This can also come across as manipulative or not genuine.

“Blunt talk” is also ineffective and equally damaging. In my experience working with leaders, people sometimes say, “I’m direct.” But this isn’t the same as being honest. You can be honest, but you can also be thoughtful in your communication. When you’re blunt, you rarely consider the impact on the other person.

What should we be going for? Straight talk: Saying the right thing to the right person in the right place, respectfully, accurately, and clearly. Your message is based on fact, data, and empathy. The person receives it, feels respected, and knows you have the best intentions and you have their back.

It’s not about being PC. It’s about speaking the truth in a respectful, authentic way to preserve dignity and build trust.

Duncan: What impact do you feel the Covid-19 crisis has had on people’s willingness to engage with others in a way that honors differences and reinforces commonalities?

Hu-Chan: I notice the human spirit of kindness and empathy everywhere. People are buying groceries for neighbors, making and donating masks. I have signed up for pro-bono coaching for nurses. Every evening at 7 o’clock in New York City, people cheer for health care workers.

Covid-19 is a global pandemic, and different cultures are reacting in very different ways. A characteristic of U.S. culture is we value individual decision making, ownership and responsibility, and personal freedom. It works beautifully when times are good. But any strength, just like in leadership development, when overused, becomes a liability. A crisis is a time for us to think about not just what “I” want, but also the wellbeing of other people. Wearing a mask in public, for example, is to protect others, not just yourself. To shelter in place is to flatten the curve so we can all fight this together. Those behaviors require a collective mindset.

We might ask ourselves: is this the right time to amplify our individualistic culture, or focus on the greater good?

Duncan: You advocate what you call a B.U.I.L.D. leadership model (Benevolence, Understanding, Interacting, Learning, and Delivery). Give us an example of how that model works.

Hu-Chan: My client, Mike, recently asked a remote team member in Asia to complete a project by a certain day. The worker replied with the words, “No way.” Mike was shocked. How could he be so disrespectful? Mike started to respond with an angry email when he stopped to think. This employee had always been hard-working and polite. What’s going on?

A quick phone call cleared it up: He had two other deadlines and wouldn’t be able to juggle all three. He’d seen Americans say “no way” in movies, and he wanted to be direct, just like Americans!

Here’s how Mike applied the B.U.I.L.D. model:

  • Benevolence: He gave the employee the benefit of the doubt and assumed best intentions.
  • Understand: He stopped writing the angry email and sought to understand the situation.
  • Interacting: He asked questions and listened in a non-judgmental way.
  • Learning: He discovered there was a cultural difference, a simple misunderstanding of an American slang term.
  • Delivery: He worked with the employee to reset the deadline and devise the best solution going forward.

He achieved a positive outcome, and saved face for everyone involved.

Duncan: You recall the Chinese saying “Don’t be like a frog living at the bottom of a well.” What helpful lesson can people take from that proverb?

Hu-Chan: Imagine you’re a frog living in the bottom of a well. What’s your life like? You see the wall of the well, deep into the ground. You look up and see a little circle—the sky, occasionally a bird flying by, someone coming in to get water. You think the whole world is this little circle. Your vision is narrow and limited. That also limits your imagination and your perspective.

This proverb teaches us to not be self-limiting. We need to jump out of the well to open our minds, our understanding, and our knowledge because we’d never know how big the world is if we limit ourselves. This means not just physically, but limiting ourselves if we read only certain things, surround ourselves with certain people, and not allow ourselves to learn from different perspectives.

We live in a world that’s becoming more diverse and more interconnected. It also has unprecedented challenges. To operate effectively, leaders need to respect and honor the differences that people bring with their perspectives. That’s honoring face.