United We Fail?

By now I’m sure you’ve read and been appalled by the story currently destroying United Airline’s reputation. An overbooked flight, not enough passengers accept a $400 voucher–eventually raised to $1000, and the next thing you know a passenger already seated is forcibly removed from the plane. And of course in this day and age, several passengers take pictures and post the dreadful details.

I just read an article by an airline pilot explaining what he thinks happened. (He also reports an overlooked fact–the flight in question was being operated by United Express–a contractor–and not United Airlines itself.) He makes this particularly astute observation.

What I sense is that the airline’s staff reached a point, after perhaps offering whatever dollar amounts their procedures called for, where they simply didn’t know what to do, and nobody was brave enough, or resourceful enough, to come up with something. Summoning the police simply became the easiest way to pass the buck.

Aha! There’s more than one “EN” infecting employees in large organizations right now. We hear all the time about ENGAGEMENT, which hasn’t improved at all in recent years. But EMPOWERMENT is engagement’s kissing cousin. The pilot goes on to say:

…Airline culture is often such that thinking creatively, and devising a proverbial outside-the-box solution, is almost actively discouraged. Everything is very rote and procedural, and employees are often so afraid of being reprimanded for making a bad decision (not to mention pressed for time) that they don’t make a decision at all, or will gladly hand the matter to somebody else who can take responsibility. By and large, workers are deterred from thinking creatively exactly when they need to.

Doing things by rote is not without its benefits for high risk, high performance organizations. Such organizations–airlines, hospitals, the military come to mind–engage in important tasks that must be done with Six Sigma levels of reliability. Substandard performance doesn’t just affect the bottom line; it entails significant risk for the organization and, more importantly, for others! As someone who flies 100k miles per year, I applaud the safety standards of the airline industry. But the downside of the “checklist” approach to organizational excellence is that it blinds everyone to the exceptional situation that must be handled in a better and non-rote way.

Of course, this is when those pesky Rebels in the workplace can come in handy. Perhaps there was an employee at the gate who had a better idea. But my guess is he didn’t know how to speak up. Perhaps she was low in the pecking order, a new employee? Maybe past suggestions had been ignored? Or just maybe the go-along-to-get-along culture was so strong that no second thoughts entered anyone’s mind. In some ways that’s even worse. The employees were so unengaged and so unempowered that they had stopped thinking.

And isn’t that the worst risk ANY ORGANIZATION can run? When EVERYONE is on the SAME PAGE, no one is available to turn it. The most important checklist any high risk, high performance organization can develop is the one that helps employees know when they must abandon Standard Operating Procedures. You can’t leave this up to the personal courage of the employee; it’s something that teams need to talk about and leaders need to facilitate. Together…or united they will fail.

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