A Leadership Lesson From United Airlines

Leadership Lesson From United Airlines

On April 9th of this year, Dr David Dao was forcefully removed from his seat on a United Airlines flight to make way for commuting airline crew members. This is one event for which United Airlines’ leadership team will be suffering the backlash for a long time to come.

Even though, the United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, went on record to say that the removal of Dr Dao was “A Mistake Of Epic Proportion” and has promised to upgrade United Airline’s customer service, it’s still too early to evaluate whether or not United Airlines’ leadership will be effective at driving those behavior changes required for better service. The key to their success will not be in the solutions they think up, but whether or not they are asking themselves the right questions.

While this ordeal was all playing out, I, myself, was taking part in my own culture change project for a membership-based corporation that wanted to improve trust from its members by shifting their culture from a sales based focus, to a service based one, which involved many of the same challenges United Airlines will be dealing with when embarking on their journey of change.

One thing I have learned over the 2 decades of managing behavior change and shifting cultures is that altering organizational behavior is no easy feat and to effectively drive positive change, a much more holistic approach is required than most leaders and managers think.

The truth of the matter is that many leadership teams that I have worked with over the years often struggle to drive behavior and culture change within their respective companies because they are not asking themselves the correct questions when witnessing these behaviors, but instead, these teams act out reactively to try to force behavior change from employees by changing policies, systems, and processes, with the hope to alter these organizational behaviors in the blink of an eye, often with marginal success, at best. This lack of success often leads to greater frustration, which is answered with layering even more systems, processes, and procedures, ultimately creating further dysfunction and disengagement from the organization.

I would not be surprised if United Airlines, initiates a similar approach with the hope to to change the customer service culture in the shortest possible time, which ultimately can cost dearly if the organizational response is similar to my experiences when facilitating and consulting on cultural behavior change.

One of the fundamental learning lessons that I have learned over the years is that human behavior cannot be altered through layering even more procedures, systems and processes. Humans are not robots and what might work on a robot, will hardly ever work on a Human Being. In fact, human behavior cannot be systemized. It can only be motivated and inspired to behave differently. In other words: “Systems Cannot Change Behavior, Only Behavior Can Change Behavior”.

To begin understanding how to create a cultural behavior shift of the proportion we will be expecting to see at United Airlines, the leadership team will first need to be prepared to answer a fundamental critical question. As simple as this question is, however, the ability to answer it and act on the answers to that question tends to be an extremely difficult one for many leadership teams.

The reason is because before finding the right answer, the leadership team must first find the right question, and this question requires an inward focus and great self-awareness. As long as the focus is outward, on the behavior and involvement of others, the question can never be found. And without asking the right questions, the right answers can obviously never be found, resulting in a lot of effort from the respective leadership team without ever achieving the desirable results.

Organizational Culture Diagram

The Organizational Culture Diagram (Daane, 2013)

This fundamental question comes from a realization that the behaviors that our customers experience from our staff are a direct reflection on the organization’s leadership style. In other words, the behavior of the staff toward customers is a direct reflection of how the leadership team behaves and leads its organization.

So, the question at hand that should be asked by the United Airlines leadership team is: “Is the behavior that we witnessed from our staff a direct reflection of this executive team’s leadership style and will we, this team, be prepared to address our own behaviors while also addressing the behaviors of our staff?

If the United Airlines leadership team has the courage to ask themselves this fundamental question and have the self-awareness and motivation to act appropriately on the answer to that question, they will be off to a good commencement to start rebuilding consumer trust and loyalty through shifting behavior within their own organization.

So, if you may be struggling with behaviors of your employees and do not know how to best overcome the issue, remember this United Airlines debacle as an example and ask yourself, and your leadership team, that critical leadership question first.

“What Role Do I Play In My Organization’s Behavior?”

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