United debacle: When can employees speak up?

The dragging of a bloody doctor off a United Airlines flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was a customer-relations disaster that sent the company’s stock tumbling and did untold reputational damage to the company.

The bizarre incident, which appeared to center around United’s rigid policies for dealing with customers, also leads to the question: where do employees draw the line between policy and individual judgment? And why were United employees so reluctant to defy the company’s official policy?


The military roots of the airline industry

Andrew Gilman, President and CEO of CommCore Consulting Group, told Ladders about the nature of the flight industry.

“The airline business has to run on a very command and control structure, much like a military operation…If you don’t have that you won’t be successful.” Gilman added that airlines “need people to do things on time, follow the rules, and it works 99% of the time.”

The airline industry is, in fact, ruled by checklists that allow very little variation, even for pilots.

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, author Atul Gawande notes that many cockpits hold checklists for what to do when there’s a crisis. (The first entry: “Keep flying the plane.” Apparently it’s common for pilots in panicky situations to take their hands off the controls.)

But the focus on checklists and rules doesn’t mean it’s easy. On airlines, just as in the military, rebellion is swiftly punished. The rigid guidelines of the industry don’t allow room for flexibility in many personal situations.

“The harder part of the business or any organization is when and how you can use judgment or other tactics to get the main results,” Gilman told Ladders.

Gilman also referenced the concept of the “Golden Hour,” a medical theory used by R Adams Cowley, MD, of the University of Maryland, which refers to the critical moments for survival following a traumatic injury.

“Right now, United is still in that emergency response mode. First they have to react, then figure out how to repair reputation—this goes for customers and employees,” Gilman told Ladders.

So how long could this firestorm continue?

Gilman told Ladders that he thinks that for the next month, the customers or passengers might think,“What are the chances that I’m gonna be asked to be moved?” when considering United.

Employees tend to favor flexible management

The way supervisors lead companies impacts how empowered employees feel to speak up. Flexible management and rigid management create two very different work cultures. In rigid cultures, employees feel they can’t speak unless they have the title or standing or disagree, which may prevent problems from being flagged.

There’s also a historical switch in how we work: the rigid management styles of the past, centered on all-powerful bosses, are giving way to flexible, non-hierarchical structures broadly.

The Edward Lowe Foundation found that employees in the current workforce “crave a more leisurely management style,” and that “the very nature of the workplace and the work to be done demands it,” even though “old-school management experts” reportedly don’t favor getting rid of strict rules and letting workers “manage themselves.”

But the text offered specific advice, including this that may have come in handy at United: “strike a balance between a strict policy and complete freedom. Be available to those employees who need more guidance than others. Also be sure to give feedback to workers, so they won’t feel all their hard work has been performed in vain.”

The article also recommends that managers meet with workers to see how much they like the business’s “existing structure,” adding that “…some employees thrive on rules and may be quite pleased with a micromanagement approach. More often than not, however, employees are bound to reply that they wouldn’t mind a little more flexibility — more freedom to create their own solutions and perhaps even the ability to decide when and where their work will be done.”

Applying this to the United Airlines dragging incident: the way bosses act probably impacts their responses to emergency situations.

The power of positivity at work

Being a good manager can go a long way toward softening a workplace culture and making employees feel more welcome.

An 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review list a slew of health problems that can arise from work-related stress— including the fact that there is “a strong link between leadership behavior and heart disease in employees,” according to a “large-scale study” done by Anna Nyberg at the Karolinska Institute. “Stress-producing bosses are literally bad for the heart,” the authors wrote.

The article gives bosses four tips on how to promote certain workplace positivity “principles” the authors list: “foster social connections,” “show empathy,” “go out of your way to help” and “encourage people to talk to you – especially about their problems.”

The general rule is that leadership truly just come from the top, and an understanding culture may even help employees’ health.