Why Things Won’t Change Anytime Soon @ United

Why Things Won’t Change Anytime Soon @ United

It’s been nearly six weeks since United Airlines suffered a serious setback to “fly the friendly skies”, with the forcible removed of Dr David Dao on flight 3411. For United executive leadership and stakeholders, it was a nightmare moment that can break even the best of companies.

To be fair, CEO Oscar Munoz stepped up to the plate and said, “the buck stops here, I’m responsible for what’s happened and here’s what I intend to do about it”. Munoz and his leadership team are taking steps to ensure that such a customer incident will never happen again. New policies, systems and training for employees have been promised.

Sadly, these measures won’t lead to significant changes to the customer experience at United. While it’s safe to say that we won’t see people pulled off any United flights in the near future, the measures will have little or no impact on changing the customer culture at United, or anywhere else for that matter.

Why is it that companies can show policies and procedures that look fine on paper, offer training for people to see how things should be done with customers, only to have it go terribly wrong and so often in real life?

Policies, systems and training programs have very little impact on altering employee’s behavior. We know this from empirical science as well as our first hand experience.

Behavioral changes occur when leaders and managers focus on the consequences that people experience as a result of their behavior. We spend far too much time telling and showing people what they should do, only to be disappointed where we don’t get the results we expect. Managers then get distracted and waste time trying to speculate why people do what they did, instead of what the manager asked for. I’ve heard some of the most amazing explanations from leaders about why they think people do what they do, sometimes with a Jungian or Freudian twist to it.

This armchair psychology doesn’t explain why people do what they do, nor does it help the manager become more effective in the future.

All of this front loading for employees (policies, processes and training) is known to behaviorial psychologists as an antecedent. An antecedent is a stimulus that comes before behavior. Antecedents are helpful (to a degree) but they don’t play a significant role in helping us promote new performance (new behaviors) or to change undesirable behaviors.

Managers and leaders enable positive performance change when they focus less on the antecedents and focus more on the consequences of the behaviors, as experienced by the person performing the action.

A vice president of sales recently complained that his regional directors were consistently turning in monthly sales reports that were not prepared as he had asked them to be done. How long has this been going on, I asked? Too long, he answered and then he begin to explain how many times he’d told these directors how to do it and they still couldn’t get it right. So what happens when you get the report and it’s not as you would like to have it, I asked? Well, he grumbled, I correct and adjust all the reports myself over the weekend before I sent them off to the head office.

Looking at the consequences, everything works fine for the sales directors. Oh sure, they hear a bit of complaining and maybe even a light threat from the VP of sales, but they still spend very little time on the reports and there aren’t any consequences that would prompt them to behave differently. (Consider sending the reports back and explaining that the report won’t be accepted until it’s done a certain way would be one way to address this.)

As easy as it sounds, too many leaders are doubling down on antecedents and taking their eyes off the real opportunity to modify behavior via consequences.

Leadership, without managing consequences, is compromised leadership. It drains the morale and performance of your organization. Managing consequences requires discipline, courage and patience and it is the foundation for execution excellence. Leadership with consequences is not only addressing poor behavior, it’s also acknowledging things that go well.

Two weeks after the Flight 3411 “nightmare moment” I flew United first class from Los Angeles to Chicago. United employees were busy with their smart phones, chewing gum at the check in counter and pow-wowing together when I boarded the plane instead of greeting customers. (Remember, this is supposed to be there first class service.) I am sure that United’s policies and customer processes suggest other behavior, but unless that supervisor or manager is holding people accountable for people’s behavior, no amount of training will help.

The fact that first class domestic flyers don’t have lounge privileges is a policy issue and this can be addressed (if United chooses to address it) through a modification of their customer processes.

Here is today’s seed2lead; don’t spend so much time telling people what to do; instead keep a careful watch on how they perform. When you see things that don’t contribute to your brand, strategy or don’t put customer delight at the center of everything you do, address it immediately so that employees have a clear understanding of what you expect them. Likewise, when you see employees “getting it right”, let them know. Positive, immediate and certain consequences are the best way to support and sustain constructive employee behavior.

United’s problem, like so many other companies who fail to execute on their strategy, is that they rely too heavily on antecedents.  Talking about exquisite policy manuals and training programs makes a nice story, but it won’t lead to sustainable behavioral change.

United CEO Oscar Munoz has demonstrated he has courage; can he create a leadership culture that leads with consequences?

It will determine whether United flies the same old street or moves to the change boulevard and returns to “flying the friendly skies”.

Contact Information

Dan Norenberg
Wensauerplatz 11
81245 Munich
Phone: +49 172 862 5123

About Dan Norenberg

Dan Norenberg improves leadership performance and organization results through Executive Ownershift®, his transformational growth process for executive teams. As a trusted advisor, consultant and professional speaker, Dan’s mission is to enable executive teams and their organizations to play at their best.