HELP – What United Airlines missed and so did we!

(This article was published first in April 2017. The lessons are timeless for airlines industry in particular, and all industries in general)

Let’s start as if this is yet another piece on the United Airlines incidence. 

So let’s have quick, almost oversimplified, recap: Overbooked flight as a standard industry practice. Passengers who had already boarded were invited to make room for 4 crew members who needed to be taken to administer another flight. When no passenger took the offer, some of them were forcibly de-boarded. Even dragged. Serious plunge for Brand Image and Stock value.

So what could have been done differently? I am sure you have been reading and thinking about it for sometime. Or, if you have got your successes through fast decision making, you may have already thought about a “simple-just…-solution” and moved on.

Either ways, what is the best alternative solution on your radar, yours or someone else’s?

I came up with these three options. 

Option 1: Offer to pay the passenger ready to get off. Increase the offered amount till someone agrees. Expect it to be somewhere between $800-$1500,

Even if gets higher, in the range of $5000 – $10000, that be allowed. After all, we have been told that the industry is overbooking flights for last 30 years. Once every 30 years spending this kind of money is totally OK.

Option 2: Invite for reverse bidding starting with slightly above reasonable amount, say $1000. In case there are no takers, increase the opening bid to a higher amounts, as in option 1.

Option 3: Make a single offer of a specific amount to the first takers. Say this amount is $800. If no one takes it, pay a big price and get the crew to their destination in a chartered flight OR reschedule the next flight. Before the passengers board!

Which of the the 3 options would you have chosen?

Are you able to think of another option beyond these?

Take some more time if you wish. Remember your choice and check how it stands vis-a-vis the rest of this article takes flight.

Though these options are good and make short and long term business sense, if these are the only ones we can think of, we are quite limited. These options only create the basic level of safety, and absence of fear and humiliation.

But they do not take us beyond greed, the type that can definitely be addressed by $10,000. None of these options are going beyond the typical tactile managers’ default mindset, stuck in fear-greed paradigm of motivating people and getting things done.

We already saw that what started with a similar off the shelf “feed the greed” quickly gave way to “invoke fear”. It never stopped slipping all the way to “exerting humiliation” and “rendering un-safety“.

When we look at alternatives, even with the advantage of hindsight and distance, we miss out on trying to find the opposites or inverses of greed, fear, humiliation.

Time and again research points out that there are bigger motivators than fear or greed. Most of us can give town hall speech and hold long conversations with our teams on those non-monetary motivators. But we all fail to think of motivators when it’s most needed. For the very few who do, it still stays confined to their team and seldom extends to customers. It seldom comes to the radar of the rank and file when situations like an overbooked flight arises.

So what is really the opposite of fear and greed and humiliation? One of it is heroism. And heroism for many can be simply the fulfilment and self-satisfaction from being useful, from being contributing.

Behavioural Economics articulates and confirms our own frequent observations where a monetary reward actually offends people who were ready to do something for the glory or for duty. Or simply to contribute and help.

Another related thread: what is the fastest and the most potent way to make someone trust you?

Surprise for many, it is asking for help. ( read more here)

It has a lot do with the way human psyche works. We like to be heroes in big and small ways and we like to protect the vulnerable.

Translation, we like liking ourselves, and we like ourselves when we help someone.

Out of the 12 critical behaviours of collaborative and transformational mindset that we recommend in our programs is “help”, asking for it by verbalising it.It takes most people by surprise.

Further, everyone takes it as no big deal and yet fails to demonstrate it in simulations, role-plays and case studies. An acknowledgement emerges eventually, that that is the exact relationship they have with asking for help.

Even as an after-thought, something on these lines hasn’t crossed the minds of anyone in the company, the airlines industry, or the wide base of internet punditry. It shows how all of us are united with United and not too different in our mindset.

Ironically, better options can come from a much ancient and fundamental human traits.

So here it is – Option 4. Asking for HELP. The airlines explains the situation to the passengers already boarded on flight one, including how a group of passengers waiting at another airport would be stranded on the airport if the crew did not reach there in time. And explicitly makes an appeal, “Please help us.”

The money would be offered, of course. But whether you offered, $500, $1500 or $10,000, would have mattered very little to those who would have volunteered to help, sacrificing their immediate needs and comfort towards a flight-ful of people, being saved from getting stranded, or some such compelling reason and articulation.

picourtsey: planes by johanna kollmann

United (and from now when I say United it’s all of us, unless we thought any different) missed empathising with the people on the first flight.

They could not conceive or relate to the idea that these people would not be swayed by small money or big threats.

They forgot to empathise that these people may get swayed by something else beyond the framework of greed and fear. 

Executive Decision making has become synonymous with quick decision making – and even more with finding quick solutions. We take great pride in solution oriented approach and percolate it down. The result is a group of people who think in a similar fashion, eventually coming up with fifty shades of black. OK…fifty shades of grey!

A much eulogised consensus decision making is done by people as different from each other as parmesan cheese is from…well, cheddar cheese; cheese all the same. 

People want to be heroes in their own eyes. Public acknowledgement is able to shift even confined minds to go beyond themselves and make small and big sacrifices. But we’re not speaking of that at all.

We’re not even speaking of the genuinely helping side of a large number of people which always moves funds after calamities occurring in the remotest parts of the world. Or of the compassionate, even gullible, with the con who is just a few hundred short of the ticket amount at every airport, railway and bus station of the world.

As part of our High Performing Teams program, the facilitator plays the client in a simulation. Not one out of the forty groups that I have been with, came to ask for help from the client when stuck. When they were suggested, they did ask for it immediately. I wonder how many of them ever did, and continued the practice of asking the client for help.

These forty groups are again representative. With some exception, human beings find it hard to ask for help. Especially when we are in a bad situation. We go from resisting to begging for help, but are seldom in between – simply and politely asking.

As organisations or representatives of organisation, or even as consultants and academicians, it’s not even there on our radars.

This is confronting and offending for many of us, but the proof is in the solutions that we thought of, spread all over the net and media.

Newsflash – The customers are cut from the same cloth. They are someone else’s employees. They are the same human beings.

Forget everything else, if we are using these call to higher or softer appeals to “motivate” our employee force, how are we amnesiac of it for our customers? Why do we think the same would not appeal to them?

We strongly believe and would like to repeat here that Behaviour is only the last mile. Even with these communications of asking for HELP, something else like the tone would give away if the underlying attitude is the old paradigm.

It is the attitude of the individual, honed and cultivated through the culture of the organisation, which makes people remember or forget some or all of those critical communication tools when the need arises.

How many organisations are ready to take such a culture leap?

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