‘To save face means simply to maintain one's dignity. ... Clearly, for these types of people, face-saving during a negotiation because of a larger issue. Angry or hostile behaviour can result when a negotiator's self-worth feels threatened. Some negotiators shut down or refuse to proceed because their ego is at stake.’


[ › blog › how-important-is-it-to-save-face-Nov 20, 2009]



The immediate question that comes to mind, especially to those of us not versed or educated in the divine learnings of negotiation theory, the intricacies and dynamics of the negotiation process would find it somewhat difficult to firstly, understand the need for face-saving during and after negotiation, let alone the meaning of the concept of face-saving

Secondly, many readers of this article would without hesitation voice their dislike of negotiation as a means of dispute resolution based on numerous grounds, for example, that it is time consuming, costly, tainted by overt and destructive conflict by a party[s] designed as a stratagem to extort an agreement from the opponent. It may also be contended that the negotiation process is unnecessarily legalistic, technical and in general a waste of time.

Notwithstanding the adverse opinions raised above, negotiation as the preferred means of conflict resolution has an ancient history as highlighted in the excerpt from an interesting article recorded below:

“Once upon a time, men arguably wiser and more sensible than those of the present era settled their disputes by sitting down together in a civilised fashion and talking until the problem was solved. No courts, no judges, no longwinded wrangling over technicalities; just a chat by the fireside, overseen by a fine, shrewd fellow with a knack for negotiation.

This was the method favoured by Confucius, and others before him through 4,000 years of Chinese folklore. Buddha championed it in India; while Japanese chukka osha (mutual friends) have long helped businesses resolve their differences. Not to be outdone, the Roman Empire later picked up the tradition, with intercessors, internuncios, interpolators and interlocutors frequently shuttling to and from antagonistic parties in a diplomatic bid for peace.

Over the generations, however, the realm of dispute resolution gradually became more convoluted and complex. Flexibility and prudence gave way to formality and structure. While a fair, regulated court system is doubtless something to be celebrated, it has – some believe – served more to quash the world of common sense negotiation than to complement it.”

[Article by, Rebecca Lowe “Back to basics” In-House Perspective (December 2013) LinkedIn].

Suffice it to say that we are living in an era of negotiation. Negotiation is a fact of life: just as we as humans cannot exist without communicating, so we can barely exist without negotiating. [See, W Pienaar & M Spoelstra ‘Negotiation - Theories, Strategies & Skills’, (1991) Juta 2-3].

‘In every country. North and South’, J Schregle ‘Comparative Industrial Relations: Pitfalls and Potential’, International Labour Review, 1981, 27 points out; ‘workers, employers, and governments have both common and divergent interests, short term and long term. The divergent interests must be accommodated and reconciled…. The way in which such interests are expressed and reconciled is the subject of industrial relations. It will be of necessity vary from country to country. The international comparison must bring out and explain the differences and similarities of national industrial relations systems’.  [See R Blanpain Comparative Labour Law and Industrial Relations” (1985) 2nd Ed. Kluwer 3].

Employers and employees usually come together in a common workplace to make products or provide services for an unspecified time. Employers who are not satisfied with workers can, at least if the action can be objectively justified, discharge them. However, the normal intention of offering and accepting employment is a continuing relationship.

However, continuing relationships – be they marital, business partnerships, or employment – are vulnerable to changing, sometimes diverging, interests, perceived or real. In other words, employment is liable to conflict, both individual and collective. Such conflict may be clear-cut, as when a group of workers is convinced that they are underpaid, or it may be diffuse and not readily apparent, say, some dissatisfaction amongst workers with the style of management in an enterprise. If it is latent and not overt an untoward incident, unimportant in itself, may be enough to set off a major dispute. Thus, the apparent cause of an industrial dispute is not always the true cause.

Sources of conflict are not confined to the conditions of employment in the employing enterprise. Workers commonly identify their interests with those of workers elsewhere, to the point of being willing to strike in support of them. As members of trade unions who may have both political and broad industrial objectives, workers may use the leverage that withholding their labour gives them to exert pressures on governments or employers collectively.  [See Blanpain (supra) 381].  

To avoid costly industrial or workplace conflict governments, established institutions mandated to resolve conflict preferably expeditiously so as to mitigate the cost of protracted labour disputes.

In the workplace environment negotiation/collective bargaining between employer representatives and trade union representatives take place on a continuous basis. Therefore, it follows that maintaining a constructive relationship between the representatives of the negotiating parties is of paramount importance.



Unfortunately, in South Africa it is often the case that collective bargaining is characterized by the inability of the negotiating parties to move beyond ‘the annual adversarial head-bashing  bargaining relationship’ to a cooperative needs-based process, one where the parties are alive to the ongoing nature of the negotiating relationship as well as the importance to value constructive engagement.

Ever so often in SA the behaviour of the negotiating parties descends into the realm of, or take the form of ‘crises bargaining.’  This form of bargaining is where one party elicits a confrontation and crises before the negotiation commences or during the process in order to negotiate on the basis of an existing crises situation.  This form of bargaining is still directed at an agreement, but the basis of power from which the parties depart are indicative of win-lose and competitive actions.

During this phase or event, the goals of one party and the attainment of those goals are in fundamental and often in fundamental and direct conflict with the goals of the other party. [See Pienaar at 178 -179].

Resources are fixed and limited, and each party wants to maximize its share of the resources. As a result, the parties resort to a set of destructive strategies and tactics in order to maximize its share of the outcomes that are attained regardless of the long term consequences.

It is correct that a conflict of needs and objectives of the negotiating parties often lies at the basis of all negotiation. Conflict is a prerequisite for negotiations. It is the manner that the parties deal with conflict that causes them to fall into the win-lose ‘trap.’

According to Pienaar at 180, the confrontation or destructive interaction between the parties often harm the negotiation process, during the dispute settlement negotiations, which settlement process is often characterized by industrial action.

Notwithstanding an eventual settlement of the dispute, the collective bargaining relationship had been irreparably damaged due to all sorts of destructive events and dysfunctional interaction between the negotiating parties; as well as precipitated by often uninvited third-party intervention.

The collective bargaining relationship is tainted to such an extent that the bargaining relationship could be defined as one characterized by the ever-present existence of dysfunctional conflict.

Under the aforementioned circumstances, third party intervention could be required to set in motion a ‘face-saving’ exercise as a first step in restoring a constructive collective bargaining relationship.

An example where relationship rebuilding or restoration may be appropriate and that comes to mind is the recent industrial action that took place at the South African Airways (SAA).

Pursuant to the resolution of the industrial action it has been deemed apposite to refer to statements made in some newspapers about the strike and its effects, as is done hereunder:


“Numsa humbled by South African Airways management — and it can’t lie about it.”

By Sikonathi Mantshantsha• 25 November 2019

Labour: SAA strike ends with employees taking ‘a beating’

“Employees at SAA have stepped back from the brink and ended their strike. Legalbrief writes that some reports described the employees’ wage agreement as ‘a beating’ after employees got nothing more than what they were offered on the eve of the strike and had to throw in the towel after losing a week’s wages.

According to a Daily Maverick report, the ‘victory’ that the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) claims over SAA is anything but victory. It says the workers, Numsa’s own members, are all the poorer for it.”


EDITORIAL: Wage ‘settlement’ no way forward for SAA – Full Business Day Editorial

With the airline, as with Eskom before it, we seem to be doing the opposite of what is required.

26 November 2019 - 05:10

“But while the strike is over for now, only the brave would bet their house on the deal enduring, says an editorial in Business Day. It says for one thing, the airline, which survives on state bailouts, has signed an above-inflation agreement that it admits is unaffordable, at least without fresh injections from the taxpayer. The report says Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, who has suggested that closing down SAA would be the best option, has made it clear that the government has little appetite to keep throwing money at it.”



Satawu, Solidarity, and AUSA - which represent workers only in some divisions at SAA - were not consulted about the planned restructuring that could result in the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Full Eyewitness News report – 15 November 2019

Trade unions not recognized at SAA clinched a major victory at the CCMA, which allows them to take part in retrenchment talks. The Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), Solidarity and the Aviation Union (AUSA) – which represent workers only in some divisions at SAA – were not consulted about the planned restructuring that could result in the loss of hundreds of jobs, notes an Eyewitness News report. Satawu, Solidarity and AUSA, which are in a coalition at SAA Technical, lodged a dispute at the CCMA two weeks ago after the national carrier failed to issue them notice over the looming retrenchments. Satawu spokesperson Zanele Sabela said: ‘We complained bitterly when SAA came out in the media to say it was planning to retrench 944 workers because they hadn’t consulted us.’ The CCMA found that the scope of section 189 consultations should also include non-organized workers.


Upon perusal of the three excerpts from newspaper articles, the reader would in all probability agree that some comments can be described as unfavourable to the Trade Unions involved in the dispute.

Other readers may state the opposite, namely that SAA has been an ‘economic disaster for years,’ or words to that effect and that an immediate business rescue intervention or some other means of resolving the financial woes of the SAA should be implemented forthwith.

It is apparent from the newspaper commentary that some of the parties are severely criticized for various reasons, ostensibly due to their contribution or common purpose in the financial despair of SAA.



“To save face means simply to maintain one's dignity. ... Clearly, for these types of people, face-saving during a negotiation because of a larger issue. Angry or hostile behaviour can result when a negotiator's self-worth feels threatened. Some negotiators shut down or refuse to proceed because their ego is at stake.”

[ › blog › how-important-is-it-to-save-face]


Face-Negotiation Theory is a theory conceived by Stella Ting-Toomey in 1985, to understand how people from different cultures manage rapport and disagreements. The theory posited "face", or self-image when communicating with others, as a universal phenomenon that pervades across cultures.


It is submitted that SAA and all the trade union parties involved consider reaching consensus on a ‘face-saving’ exercise having regard to the predicament that they find themselves in. The commentary recorded above is very critical inter alia about the financial sustainability of SAA.

More importantly, a joint consensus-seeking process should be announced for example where all stakeholders declare their commitment to attempt to salvage SAA from financial ruin.

The consequences that may follow in the event that SAA is restructured, rationalized or whatever one wishes to term it, employees will in all probability be retrenched.

A factor that could mitigate further dysfunctional conflict as described above could be the establishment of a joint consultative forum, facilitated by experienced CCMA Facilitators to minimize job losses and rescue SAA from total collapse in a manner of speaking.

Face-saving tactics as an aid to construction negotiation in Hong Kong

Tak Wing Yiu , Yuet Nog Chung - Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management

ISSN: 0969-9988 - Publication date: 17 November 2014


In construction, the involvement of complex human interactions and incompatible interests among negotiating parties would pose as an obstacle in any negotiation process. The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of the face in governing the behaviour of negotiating parties.



This paper identified the generic types of face-saving tactics used by construction negotiators, investigated the tactic-outcome relationships and examined the effects of face-inducement factors on these relationships with the use of moderated multiple regression (MMR).



A taxonomy of face-saving tactics has been developed by employing the technique of principal component of factor analysis. The results suggest that the use of face-saving tactics in construction negotiation would statistically result in the achievement of mutual agreement, maintenance of harmony and avoidance of offending situations. The MMR models finally affirm that some tactic-outcome relationships would significantly depend on the face-inducement factors.


Research limitations/implications

This research highlights the usefulness of face-saving tactics in construction negotiation.


Practical implications

The findings revealed that these tactics can help facilitate the achievement of mutual agreement, maintain harmony and avoid offending situations.

In this connection, an awareness of the proper use of face-saving tactics is worth-noticing in order to have successful dealings in negotiating project disputes.



In construction, there are some distinct features which may influence the use of face-saving tactics and the behaviour of project dispute negotiators. The findings of this research would provide an insight into promoting proactive and collaborative project dispute resolution.


Yiu, T. and Chung, Y. (2014), "Face-saving tactics as an aid to construction negotiation in Hong Kong", Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, Vol. 21 No. 6, pp. 609-630.


A factor that could mitigate further dysfunctional conflict as described above could be the establishment of a joint consultative forum, facilitated by experienced CCMA Facilitators to minimize job losses and rescue SAA from total collapse, so to speak.


Johann Scheepers

28 November 2019




Copyright reserved by the writer. No part of this article/guide may be reproduced, without prior written permission of the author.


The content of this article is intended to be general in substance and nature; to provide commentary on contemporary issues and where appropriate constitutes a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about the reader’s specific circumstances.


The commentary expressed herein is that of the writer and not that of any professional organization or entity with which the writer may be associated with.




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