January 10, 2023

How to Sabotage Your Brand Reputation in Four Days

As someone who frequently travels, I followed the Southwest Airlines 2022 winter storm fiasco with great interest, because it served as an example of where the rubber hits the runway in terms of leadership and left me to question what some leaders understand about empathy.

The condensed version of the story – which will likely have a long shelf life in the world of business case studies – is that during a perfect storm scenario the largest air carrier in the country, Southwest Airlines, through their antiquated technology, created scheduling chaos. Thousands of passengers were stranded for days, many forced to sleep on airport floors. Adding to the damage, Southwest Airlines team members felt ignored or muted weeks earlier by Leadership when they expressed grave concern about the upcoming busy travel period.

It is reasonable to say this storm stepped slightly outside the boundaries of predictable risk assessments, but the fallout remains, and responsibility for it rightfully lands on the shoulders of the CEO, Bob Jordan. In a summary of the storm, the failures, and Jordan’s video apology, some point out that the video statement was long on corporate-speak regarding commitment to customers,  thanked the hardworking crew, but came up extremely short on a key soft skill: empathy.

Empathy has been mentioned as an essential component of the future of work for managers and employees alike. But it’s not something that comes easily to everyone. Many managers and CEOs are expected to embody a tough, stoic attitude that helps ensure a company’s growth and financial stability. Being sensitive to employees’ feelings seems to run against the grain of the “captain of industry” stereotype.

So, how does someone develop empathy? And if it’s not natural, can you fake it until you make it?

Brene Brown describes empathy as “the ability to connect with people so they know they’re not alone in a struggle. Empathy is a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing; it doesn’t require that we have experienced the same situation they are going through”.

What is most important is that your actions and words make people feel like they matter. Leaders, by virtue of their position, have enormous potential to inspire people and strengthen bonds and loyalties within a team. Did Bob Jordan do this? From what I saw in his video, he made a step in the right direction by thanking his employees, but that was gratitude, not empathy. Repeated apologies to the passengers did very little to reduce their frustration other than losing trust and confidence in the airline’s ability to take care of them in the future (and Southwest Airlines stock plummeted on December 27th to a 52-week low).

From my perspective, empathy could have been shown by the members of senior management being present at airports, rolling up their sleeves and working side-by-side with the overworked team members, arranging for food and any other types of small relief to be delivered, or any number of “in-the-trenches” actions that temporarily erase that solid line between management and rank-and-file. Even if union regulations expressly forbade managers from doing this type of work, there would have been many other ways that management could have shown clear compassion and understanding of the employees in this time of crisis. There are few things that impress an employee more than when the boss jumps into the trenches with them.

Considering that superior customer service and employee dedication built the Southwest brand, what would you have done to weather the storm?  I would love to hear your thoughts.


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