The story is well reported – on April 9th, a United Airlines passenger was drug off an airplane by security officers after he refused to get off the plane.  Social media, news outlets, and coffee shops across the world are talking about the now infamous “fight club” class of service on United Airlines….United Sections

This is a classic public relations nightmare that will cost United millions of dollars in direct compensation, loss of customer good will, and the tarnishing of their reputation. There will be hundreds of comments as to how United should have managed this situation, and this will be a case study used in the future to teach better decision making skills.

But, with all of the bluster and armchair quarterbacking, it is likely that the bigger lessons to be learned might be lost. With that in mind, let’s analyze the situation a bit…

FIRST, let’s just lay some facts on the table which are somewhat irrelevant to the discussion…

  • DENIED BOARDING: Many people have been surprised to learn that an airline can deny a paying passenger the seat they have been guaranteed. This is a larger issue of public policy, contract law, and overall operational efficiency – i.e., if airlines could not do this, many seats would go unsold, which would raise the price of all other airline tickets. We can debate the justice and/or the merits of this reality…but, it IS a reality. This happens frequently – paying passengers are denied boarding, and then compensated.
  • MULTIPLE PLAYERS: This was more than just a United Airlines incident. Law enforcement officers were involved, and it was the law enforcement officers who ultimately decided to use physical force. United staff had asked for help; but, it was law enforcement that used force when confronted with a passenger who refused to leave the plane.
  • PASSENGER RESISTANCE: Regardless of the merits, or the “rightness” of his resistance, the passenger refused to comply with United staff and law enforcement officers. This is against the law. The merits of this passenger frustration are not in question – the passenger was in a horrible situation, and most of us would be furious if we had been asked to get off that plane. Even the passenger’s claim that he needed to work the next day is secondary to the situation – people who are forced to serve on jury duty sometimes have to sacrifice their work priorities to follow the law.

This is not an attempt to defend or justify anything that happened. But, it is important to understand that this situation is a convergence of many issues — conflicting priorities, uncompromising legal parameters, human behaviors, crisis management, and more.  It was the proverbial “perfect storm” where multiple factors combined to create an horrific outcome.

So, what can be learned? Not just by United, but by all of us?  Three lessons come to mind…

  1. All Staff Need Leadership Skills: That day, in that moment, the leaders of United Airlines and the leaders of Law Enforcement were frontline staff members. They had to make complicated, crisis-moment decisions. Leadership decisions.   Many will argue that these individuals needed better communication skills – TRUE! Many will argue that they needed better procedures – TRUE! But, this was an unforeseen situation where careful DECISION MAKING was required. Sadly, most organizations invest in leadership skills only for current managers or future managers. For more than 20 years I have encouraged organizations to develop their leadership capabilities far beyond the ranks of management and high potentials. Rarely does it happen. Yet, when things go really wrong – formal leaders are rarely to be found. Which leads to the next lesson…
  2. Risk & Avoidance Are Best ROI Calculations for Leadership Development:   One of the most common questions that I get asked by senior leaders considering whether to invest in leadership development is “What is the ROI?” It is the wrong question. The better question is “What is the RISK?”Good leadership is about adapting to the moment, making hard choices, and being balanced in perspective. Many try to squeeze leadership development into a convenient and simplistic analsysis — “If we invest in leadership learning, will we see a positive ROI within the next fiscal period?” This is a flawed calculation. It is essentially asking how LITTLE can we spend on building great leadership and still maintain high levels of profitability?The better approach is to use a Loss Prevention Calculation. What is the cost of one poorly made decision – like the United Airlines debacle? Thus, how MUCH should we invest to avoid that risk?The more we view leadership investment as the avoidance of horrible decision making, and the less we view it as a capital investment that should generate immediate results…the more we will realize that strong leadership development is not a nice-to-have benefit within a company, but rather an must-have investment in protecting the long term viability of the organization.
  3. Adaptable Leadership More Effective than Rigid Procedures: Once again, the temptation for commentators of the United Airlines debacle will be to offer two so-called solutions…
    • First, to train staff with better “customer service” skills.
    • Second, to have different procedures in place that did not rely upon law enforcement officers to enforce policies.

Both recommendations would be helpful. The situation would have benefited from better communications.  And, better procedures might have helped to avoid THIS situation.

But, these recommendations miss the larger lesson. Employees will always face unexpected, unforeseen, unfortunate circumstances in their work.  There will be situations where no solution is 100% attractive to all stakeholders involved.  Consider the “no win” dilemma during the United Airlines travesty…

    • The airline NEEDED to get a crew to Kentucky. It HAD TO HAPPEN or else scores of passengers, including everyone else on the plane, would have missed flights, been delayed, and been inconvenienced.
    • The ONLY viable option was probably to have four passengers get off the plane. Yes, the airline could have transported their crew to Kentucky by ground – a suggestion overheard on the video that day. But with crew rest requirements, the distances involved, and other factors, this would have resulted in many cancelled flights down stream. Maybe the airline could have flown the crew on some other airline – let’s assume that was not an option for today’s discussion.
    • Only THREE passengers accepted the offered compensation and agreed to get off the plane. Every other passenger who stayed on the plane had adopted the same “not me” stance resistance that the “drug off passenger” had adopted. The entire plane load was resisting — here were no willing volunteers.

So, you have a “no win” situation in the moment. In such circumstances, good procedures only go so far.  If you try to rely on procedures and process alone, the end game is always a question of ENFORCEMENT – how do you make people comply with the rules.  You are relying on FORCE – either virtual or physical – to get the job done.  And, in this scenario it was forcing ONE PERSON to comply with the expectation to get off the plane.

The better approach in a “no win” scenario, would be to rely on leadership. In this case…good Negotiations Skills.  There were many people on the plane, not just one.  And, using good Negotiation Skills would have enabled the airline employee to consider a lot of questions and options…

  • What were the ALTERNTAIVES for all of the passengers on the plane? (Search for the term “BATNA” on the internet for more information.)
  • What were the INTERESTS of all other passengers? What did the various passengers care about, other than money or traditional compensation?
  • How could you have used a CROWD SOURCED solution to find the one extra passenger to get off the plane?

We won’t go into a lot of detail about the types of negotiation skills that could have resulted in a good outcome. But, there are many approaches that would have led to better results.  However, it is safe to say…

  • Relying upon PROCEDURES is about FORCE. It is a negative approach to problem solving.
  • Relying on LEADERSHIP is about FLEXIBILITY.  It is a positive approach to problem solving.