Culture, Munoz and United

Because I occasionally fly United Airlines, I received an email from Oscar Munoz, CEO at United Airlines that illustrates an often missed step in the culture cycle. Here is what he said in his email, “Earlier this month, we broke that trust when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of our planes. It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”

So, here is the culture cycle. Pay close attention to step 3.

  1. We hold beliefs and assumptions, about the way we see the world.
  2. We connect behaviors to those beliefs and assumptions.
  3. We test those behaviors against the reality of consequences.
  4. The behaviors that survive the test become our customs and rituals.

We can say we hold values of integrity, honesty, fairness. We can even define behaviors connected to those beliefs like courtesy, listening, understanding another’s viewpoint. But, somewhere along the line, for the crew on that United Airlines flight, they had learned that NOT following the rules ended in a reprimand. They attempted to displace four passengers for four crew trying to meet a schedule in another city. That was the rule. Had they not followed the rule, they knew there would be hell to pay, a write-up in their employee file, a graveyard shift, a demotion or skipped promotion. They knew that defined behavior of courtesy would never stand up against the reality of consequences.

So, someone got dragged out the door. Based on the settlement with the passenger, it would have been cheaper to purchase four Tesla automobiles for each of the four flight crew and ask them to drive instead of displacing the four passengers.

And right about now, every employee at United Airlines is confused about what to do in spite of what Munoz says.

3 thoughts on “Culture, Munoz and United

  1. Barry Linetsky

    Tom: That letter from the CEO was pathetic and demonstrated that he didn’t “get it.” He is accountable for those rules and the company culture. The rules were clear: throw mama from the train. I can’t for the life of me figure out why paying customers don’t come first. I know they would say that they had to get their crew to another city to serve paying customers so that a whole plane load of paying customers could be served. But there are other ways to do that. An inexpensive charter flight seems to be the best route. And even if four passengers did volunteer, wouldn’t they have to delay the flight to get their baggage off the plane (unless no checked baggage was one of the conditions for selecting passengers).

    Good column, as usual.

  2. Kevin Malnor

    It’s always the right time to do the right thing! Clearly these United workers had lost sight of why they have jobs… because of the people they serve, i.e. those that choose to fly United. Munzo might want to read, “The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership” by James C. Hunter… he might discover what went wrong within his organization. Ultimately he is responsible for the culture at United that lead to this unfortunate event.


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