When United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was first interviewed about one of his employees forcibly removing a passenger from a recent flight, he tossed off the incident as regrettable — but necessary. Referring to dragging a passenger off a plane as “re-accommodated” did little for his, or the airline’s, reputation.
What happens when a CEO has their primary focus on blaming others when things go poorly, rather than owning up to their own, or the company’s, mistakes? The United Airlines incident is a classic example of how ego-driven needs in leadership can harm an organization’s reputation.
As a leader, such a scenario is a shining opportunity for a senior executive to seize control of the situation and turn it around. Instead, far too many leaders blame others, relegating the situation to “regrettable actions of employees” or even putting the responsibility on the victimized passenger. In other words, the leader’s sense of self-importance (their ego) and corporate rightness reigns supreme.
While highly public company crises, such as the United debacle, are somewhat rare, airline executives worldwide are regularly falling victim to their own egos — egos that prevent them from making wise business decisions and lead them to unconsciously set poor examples for their employees and create a culture where poor passenger service may become the norm.
Every flight may begin at an airport, but every day, the overall tone at an airport is set by the leaders who run it — a tone that gets passed on to staff and eventually passengers. So how can today’s leaders proactively avoid making those missteps and ensure that their airports create a productive and customer-driven culture? The key is to be on the lookout for the following three ego-driven personality traits and stop them before they take off.
Every leader knows the value of listening to their managers and front-line staff, but when the ego gets triggered, it wants to win, be right and avoid appearing incompetent or stupid. Leaders in this state can become defensive or abrasive, which in turn can stimulate similarly dysfunctional behaviors in their colleagues.
Posters plastered up on the wall declaring commitments to “customer service,” “airport safety” and the like, will be seen as insincere when the dominant organizational mood set by the leader is one of dysfunction, due to a leader who can’t overcome their personal ego-system reactions.
The bottom line is that not listening to other points of view can lead to negative unforeseen and significant consequences in profitability, reputation and employee morale.
In the case of Munoz, his initial public response regarding the passenger pulled from the plane was to criticize the passenger and the lack of “proper tools, policies and procedures.” Deflection by a leader is invariably an ego-driven disaster in the making.
One cure for dismissing feedback is creating a culture of trust and transparency that starts at the top. This means that airport leadership must be seen as being receptive to input and feedback from their management teams as well as the front-line staff who deal daily with passengers and airport operations. This is especially important when the leader disagrees with the point of view he or she is hearing.
Playing the Blame Game
When things go wrong (especially in a public forum), the executive ego can get very focused on who’s at fault. The bottom line is that everyone wants to be the hero and no one wants to be the fall guy. In this circumstance the ego points the finger at others. The focus is on who’s incompetent in airport operations, doesn’t get it at the retail level, or never should have been put in that passenger service role.
To overcome this dynamic, leaders must first humbly own their (or the team/company) part of the problem. The leader then sets the example for others to “look in the mirror.” Leaders who are secure enough to say “I screwed up” create a culture where employees hold themselves accountable.
How much better off would Munoz have been to acknowledge that his policies directly or indirectly contributed to passengers being deplaned in such an un-customer-focused way? Or what about recognizing from the start that this was not an action consistent with the values of the company? Owning a problem requires doing the right thing above the ego-driven goal of “looking good.” All leaders know this intellectually — but when the ego is threatened, the brain stem takes over and we react ineffectively.
Despite what can sometimes be a tough exterior, almost no airport executive wants to appear uncaring, or be disliked at large. This can lead to a situation where even the most senior leaders avoid putting themselves in the uncomfortable position of having a direct discussion about a delicate issue. Instead they sugarcoat, vent to others or just move folks from role to role. As a result, overall airport performance suffers, and employees can end up feeling unengaged, ultimately impacting the tone they pass on to passengers.
To overcome the ego threat that leads to conflict avoidance, start by sharing with the other person(s) the discomfort you feel at bringing up the issue. Next, let them know what your intention is for the conversation. And finally, state your observations about their behavior, not your conclusions.
The bottom line is that to create an airport culture that has engaged employees, and is focused on passenger well-being, leaders must embrace their humility and vulnerability — rather than their egos. By doing so they encourage everyone around them to do the same, and together, soar to new heights.
Shayne Hughes is the co-author of the newly released book Ego Free Leadership: Ending the Unconscious Habits that Hijack Your Business (http://learnaslead.com/ego-free-leadership/) and president of Learning as Leadership.