I’m a United 1K member. Like so many other people all over the world, it’s been hard for me to avoid United in the news these days. I tend not to make much of the sensationalist press stories about what happens on airplanes because I have enough direct experience of United to form my own opinion. (Let’s just say I’m disappointed more often than I’m amazed.) I also expect that with so many thousands of flights and so many millions of passengers, the law of large numbers does not work in your favor and sooner or later something unpleasant is bound to happen.
But I read an article in the New York Times recently that made me want to reach out. The article was about some policy changes you’ve recently announced in the wake of the last incident.
“We issued an updated policy to make sure crews traveling on our aircraft are booked at least 60 minutes prior to departure,” a spokeswoman, Maggie Schmerin, wrote in an email on Sunday. “This is one of our initial steps in a review of our policies.”
As a United frequent flyer and a brand and culture consultant, this article made me think that you guys are way off base.
What happened with Dr. Dao was not a failure of policy, but of purpose and humanity.
Below are some observations you might find helpful and some thoughts on how you might not only avoid future disasters, but reclaim United’s position as a truly great company.
Breakdowns in behavior are rarely the function of insufficient policy but rather of a troubled culture. Business leaders often instinctively reach for policy as the most powerful tool to correct human behavior. This instinct is a relic of industrial-era command and control models of leadership. But policy is the problem, not the solution. United employees are too often failing to see customers as human beings. They are too often following rules and reading scripts instead of engaging through empathy and humanity. The problem isn’t that the robots are running the wrong program. The problem is that you have robots in the first place when you should have human beings.
No human being needs a policy to tell them not to drag a paying customer off an airplane. That’s why the public was so outraged. This is common sense. It doesn’t require a blue-ribbon panel or an exhaustive investigation. It requires simple humanity. None of your employees would act this way in their personal lives. But the culture of your organization is signaling to them that this is the behavior United expects. Why? How?
People deliver the experience they receive. People who are loved and respected, tend to love and respect others. People who live in a world of perceived scarcity and feel nickel and dimed all the time by their own leaders tend to re-create that experience for others. These feelings are not uncommon for employees in the hardscrabble and heavily unionized airline industry, but nor are they inevitable.
Great organizational behavior requires a clear shared purpose at the center. As a frequent flyer, I know United’s slogan. But I can discern no distinctive purpose for your company. I can tell you’re trying to run an operationally and financially sound airline. But I cannot tell what United stands for. And I’ll bet your employees can’t either. More policy is not going to help. Your employees need to know what matters, they need to believe in it, they need to connect to it emotionally. And then they need to be given the autonomy to pursue it. Policy as the primary lever of change is only going to reinforce the sense of learned helplessness that I have seen countless times on the faces of United employees at the gate and in-flight.
Cultures change systemically. I don’t mean to suggest that policy is unimportant or counter-productive. Policy is an important part of a cultural system. But it is only one part. Too often employees receive mixed messages. What the company says doesn’t match its policy, which doesn’t match leader behavior, which doesn’t match how performance is measured and managed, which doesn’t match what employees are compensated for…
To make United the great company it deserves to be for employees, travelers, communities, and, yes, for you, I think there are three steps you need to take.
1. Identify the behaviors that manifest United’s purpose and values. You’ve got a purpose and a set of values. I question whether they are truly distinctive (I’d be happy to debate that over a beer) but it’s clear as day to anyone watching, that the aspirational words are insufficiently connected to daily behavior. You’ve got to truly align leaders around your purpose, values, and behaviors, and then share it with all employees in a way that builds true belief and emotional connection.
2. Design a culture that fosters the right behaviors. Be systemic about it. You don’t have to change it all tomorrow. But you do have to be intentional about it. Consider leader behavior, org structure, metrics, performance management, rewards & recognition, employee selection, job design, training, tools, rituals, the physical and virtual spaces in which your employees work, communications, and, yes, process and policy. What story does each tell? Are they all telling the same story? Are they all consistent with United’s purpose and values?
3. Share this with the world. Smartly. “Fly the friendly skies” is not enough. Actually, it’s absurd to claim this when the experience of nearly every passenger is so at odds with this claim. Ralph Waldo Emerson said this brilliantly: “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”
I do have to give you credit for improvements I’ve perceived over the past few months. Generally, I’ve been having a better experience on United these past few months than I did previously. But I’m setting a low bar. Apple is distinctively creative and iconoclastic. Nordstorm is distinctively service-oriented. United is not distinctively friendly. I suspect more people would say that air travel is degrading and off-putting than would say it is warm and welcoming.
So I think there’s more room for product and service improvement. But mostly I think this comes back to culture. If you create the conditions in which United employees feel warm and welcomed, if they truly understand what United stands for, if they truly believe that you hold your values above all else, if you give them the autonomy to be their best selves, I think you’ll go a long way to achieving everything you hope for and then some.
Oscar, I hope you’ll take some of this to heart. You deserve to run a great company and not to have to do these press walks of shame, your employees deserve to work for a company they feel proud of, and I deserve a truly friendly experience every time I fly.