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Southwest Airlines: Love is in the Air
Hannah M. Haggins
Organizational Theory and Behavior
Profesor Robert Peart
March 02, 2008
Southwest Airlines: Love is in the Air
There are no reservations that Southwest Airline is a sensation in the airline industry and an icon in the business world. No other U.S. airline has come close to duplicating their history of productivity. Business leaders and schools alike strive to comprehend what sets this company apart from its competitors while many attempt to imitate their success. Using our newly acquired viewpoints on organizational behavior, we have tested Southwest Airline on a variety of the psychology, communication and leadership structures we have learned throughout this semester.
There are several reasons Southwest Airline has emerged well above its peers. From their trademark Ð²Ð‚ÑšretortsÐ²Ð‚Ñœ that come from the cockpit to the eccentric uniforms and costumes, this is an airline that chooses to color Ð²Ð‚Ñšoutside the lines.Ð²Ð‚Ñœ Employees, hired for their attitudes, become part of a family who fosters their self-respect and suits many of their inborn human desires. Southwest Airline practices open communication with its Ð²Ð‚Ñšfamily membersÐ²Ð‚Ñœ, resulting in unusually positive relations with its labor unions. Lastly, this is a company of leaders being guided by leaders of all styles as embodied by the appealing style of the companyÐ²Ð‚â„¢s founding president and CEO, Herb Kelleher.
Each of these characteristics sets this company apart from other airlines, and has contributed to its amazing accomplishments. As a result of this examination, we will provide an explanation of how a company that puts customers second can be so widely successful, and emphasize the significance of understanding organizational behavior.
Hiring for Attitude
While most companies have a human resources or Personnel department, Southwest Airline relies on its Ð²Ð‚ÑšPeopleÐ²Ð‚Ñœ department to select the right people to fill the Southwest uniform.
In the book Nuts, the authors deduce that Southwest Airline employs for attitude and trains for skills (Freiburg, 1998). In this book, Kelleher is quoted referencing the type of people the company recruits:
Ð²Ð‚ÑšWe look for attitudes; people with a sense of humor who donÐ²Ð‚â„¢t take themselves too seriously. WeÐ²Ð‚â„¢ll train you on whatever it is you have to do, but the one thing that Southwest Airline cannot change in people is inherent attitudesÐ²Ð‚Ñœ (Freiberg, 1998)
This is an area in which Southwest Airline will not compromise. There is a strict conviction at Southwest Airline that its people define the company, and they go to exceptional extents to ensure they are hiring employees who fit the Southwest Airline mold.
In Chapter 5 of our textbook, we were presented with Ð²Ð‚ÑšThe Big-five Personality Dimensions.Ð²Ð‚Ñœ Based on our research, we began to see a picture emerge of the personality of a typical Southwest Airline employee and chose to measure them along these dimensions. (Champoux, 2006)
High in Extroversion- Chatty, energetic, outgoing, confidant,
High in Emotional stability- Peaceful, laid-back, self-assured
High in Agreeableness- Accommodating, open-minded, pleasant, considerate
High in Conscientiousness- Trustworthy, prepared, thorough
High in Openness to Experience- Inquisitive, intellectual, artistic
Southwest Airline has defined the type of qualities they desire, and they work hard to find employees who display these characteristics. The advantage of hiring for personality or attitude is that it is difficult for an applicant to hide or play a role in an interview. In a related story found in the book Nuts, a highly adorned military pilot applied to the flight department. While traveling to Dallas on Southwest Airline for his interview, the pilot was impolite to the customer service agent and bitter and condescending when he arrived and spoke to the receptionist. Regardless of his admirable resume, and decorated flight record his attitude simply did not fit the company and he was quickly dismissed. This is a clear example of how attitude outclass skill in Southwest Airline hiring procedure.
Southwest Airline has done an outstanding job encouraging employee self-esteem. The company will be rewarded for taking time to focus on improving employee self-esteem. An individualÐ²Ð‚â„¢s low self-worth produces low confidence and negative feelings, which will ultimately defeat the individual. This harmful mind-set will influence the individualÐ²Ð‚â„¢s quality of work, effectiveness and overall health.
There are two requirements that satisfy a personÐ²Ð‚â„¢s self-esteem. The first is a sense of belonging or being loved. The second need is territory or a personÐ²Ð‚â„¢s individuality. Uniqueness is what separates a person from the group. Self-esteem concentrates on the individualÐ²Ð‚â„¢s moral principles, and soul.
A person can compare these needs to the self-esteem sausage. The self-esteem sausage is made up of two parts. One half is love and the other half is individuality. In order to have a healthy self-esteem, a person must have a full sausage with both ends well balanced.
Southwest Airline focuses on keeping its employeesÐ²Ð‚â„¢ self-esteem sausage balanced. In order to keep the love in balance, the company focuses on creating a home or family within the organization. Employees are not afraid to hug each other. Instead of handshakes, introductions are done with hugs (Culberson, 2004). Southwest Airline is not afraid to talk to their employees with feeling and tell them the company loves them and wants to make sure they are happy. The companyÐ²Ð‚â„¢s objective is to have employees retire, and tell family and friends that working at Southwest Airline was one of the optimum experiences he or she ever had, and that it helped them grow beyond anything he, or she thought possible (Kelleher, 1997).
Southwest Airlines number one concern is its people. The strong focus on their people and establishing an environment that spotlights love helps satisfy the employees need to belong.
Southwest Airline also supports employee individuality. The company values highlight nourishing an employee need for independence. Some of these values embrace, personality, ownership, fun, family and equalitarianism (Freiberg, 1998). The company promotes uniqueness by allowing employees to be themselves when they come to work. The company does not want employees to change their persona and become extremely reserved or unadventurous in the work setting. Southwest Airline also generates a fun environment for its employees. The company prides itself on practical jokes among the employees and its gallery of fun photos exhibited at the head office. Finally, employees are given rights within the company. Each employee is authorized to make suggestions and execute change. The company takes the time to listen to employees.
Southwest Airline contributes its huge success to its employees. The company continues to build an organization in which personality counts as much as quality and dependability (Kelleher, 1997). Employees learn to value one another and the company highlights the two key pieces of the self-esteem sausage, love and individuality. The companyÐ²Ð‚â„¢s ethics and purpose help to keep its employees self-esteem sausages in symmetry, which leads to greater employee satisfaction and performance.
One reason for Southwest Airlines achievements is the way that the company manages its employees. Kelleher says, Ð²Ð‚Ñšwhen people derive enjoyment they tend to work together better, they tend to be more productiveÐ²Ð‚Ñœ (Bird, 2003). An effect of this way of life, according to Vice President of People Libby Sartain is that Southwest Airline has a lower turnover rate than other airlines (Gittell, 2001).
Southwest Airline has been able to uphold a cheerful work environment because they have met the needs of their employees. Abraham MaslowÐ²Ð‚â„¢s Hierarchy of needs provides an excellent study method for examining SouthwestÐ²Ð‚â„¢s success. Maslow disputed that human needs could be established on five specific hierarchical categories: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Physiological needs can be described as the simple human needs such as food and water. Safety needs include the desire to be protected from harm, while the belonging need refers to the human want to give and receive love. Esteem and self-actualization communicates a personÐ²Ð‚â„¢s self-confidence and desire for self-fulfillment, respectively. Maslow further argued that the Ð²Ð‚Ñšfive needs created a need hierarchy according to their power,Ð²Ð‚Ñœ (Champoux, 2006). He believed that once a lower need is fulfilled, a humanÐ²Ð‚â„¢s behavior Ð²Ð‚Ñšcenters more frequently on the approval of higher-order needs, which takes place throughout daily livingÐ²Ð‚Ñœ (Champoux, 2006).
For a company to be successful its employees must have their survival needs (physiological and safety), and their relatedness needs (belonging) satisfied, so that they can focus on esteem and self-actualization. SouthwestÐ²Ð‚â„¢s corporate approach towards employees is intended to satisfy the survival and relatedness needs, and persuades employees to focus on the esteem and self-actualization, or growth, needs.
From an employee standpoint, the life needs can be at least partially satisfied if one has a safe, well-paying job. This type of job security normally happens within a company with stable growth history. To that end, Southwest Airline has met their employeesÐ²Ð‚â„¢ existence needs on the following levels:
1) The airline has been lucrative for 28 years straight.
2) Southwest executed a no lay-off policy after the disastrous events of 9/11, while other airlines put down a combined 50,000 workers.
3) Southwest was the first airline to present an employee incentive plan.
4) SouthwestÐ²Ð‚â„¢s corporate approach recognized employees as more vital than customers or shareholders.
But Southwest Airline does not stop at satisfying existence needs. On the relatedness level, they endeavor to maintain a family atmosphere. At their headquarters in Dallas, the walls are scattered with more than 10,000 picture frames surrounding photos of employees' pets, Herb dressed like Elvis or in drag and of Southwest Airline planes chewing on competitors' aircraft (Serwer, 2004). This type of presentation could be termed a family photo album rather than a standard corporate headquarter art exhibit. Additionally, according to Chief Operating Officer Colleen Barrett, Ð²Ð‚ÑšWe celebrate everything. It's like a fraternity, a sorority, and a reunion. We are having a party!Ð²Ð‚Ñœ (Serwer, 2004).
With the existence and relatedness needs met, Southwest Airline employees can focus on the more corporate-relevant needs of esteem and self-actualization, and the company helps in this favor as well. Southwest Airline has an empowering suggestion strategy that strengthens the esteem needs of an employee because a reply is always returned within 1 week. Ð²Ð‚ÑšThis kind of atmosphere crafts a corporate background where people feel relaxed talking with anyone, sharing thoughts, and presenting questions on a problemÐ²Ð‚Ñœ (Cohen, 2005). Furthermore, Southwest Airline encourages their employeesÐ²Ð‚â„¢ self-actualization by sustaining a high number of frontline supervisors. Southwest Airline upholds a manager to employee ratio of 10:1 (Gittell, 2001).
By centering attention to the contentment of employee subsistence, and encouraging the evolution of the growth needs, Southwest Airline is able to retain a low level of employee turnover in an industry that is ripe with layoffs.
Southwest Airlines management team has used efficient and open communication to maintain a happy and constructive workforce from the companyÐ²Ð‚â„¢s start. The foundation, for this communication attempt lies in the move towards labor relations that Southwest Airline has implemented. With 90% of the airlineÐ²Ð‚â„¢s employees structured into one labor union or another, it is critical for Southwest Airline to maintain constructive and genuine channels to convey modifications in corporate objectives and tactics.
From day one, Southwest Airline understood that labor relations would be a significant element to the future success of the airline. With this fact in mind, senior leaders adopted a groundbreaking approach to the longstanding matter of organized labor; they received and encouraged the existence of labor unions in the business model. This new way of dealing with organized labor permitted both sides of the issue to move away form the classic rival relationship between management and organized labor, towards a unification of success and goals for both sides (Kochan, 1999). Both sides have worked hard to maintain open lines of communication to guarantee everyday goals that have helped Southwest Airline maintain its advantage in the aggressive airline industry.
The first accomplishment in this highly developed relationship was the removal of unyielding constitution between unions and management outside of the necessary official compromise and criticism process. This casual style has allowed both sides to initiate discussions and express apprehension devoid of the customary unconstructive consequences of reserved labor-management relationships. When employees introduced questions about Southwest Airline employing the Family Medical Leave Act, the company held conferences to communicate openly how the company has meet the terms of the act and informed employees of new advantages related to the act. From the management side, when changes and revisions are made to the benefits package, unofficial conversations are held with labor leaders to clarify the need for change and what affect it will have on collective bargaining (Kochan, 1999). This line of attack gives both sides a sense of trust in each other and helps foster a positive atmosphere throughout the company.
The second chief development Southwest Airline has made in labor communication is between frontline workers and senior management. Several times a year managers visit various locations to meet with frontline workers. These meetings have no set agenda and present an opportunity for employees to express concerns to top managers in the company. This tactic has several benefits for the company. First, it offers employees a direct line of communication to top managers, giving employees a feeling of involvement in the decision-making process. This process also helps to ensure that employees feel their needs and concerns are heeded and adopted.
These briefings have a very valuable influence on managers as well. Through these meetings with frontline employees, new managers are introduced to the unmatched culture that is Southwest Airlines (Kochan, 1999). In addition to cultivating new managers, these meetings keep top managers close to the everyday problems that threaten the airline making sure that they never lose sight of the final goal; a happy customer.
Herb Kelleher helped shape Southwest Airline into the flourishing business that it is today. He is deemed a top business leader for several reasons. After exploring his leadership techniques, it appears that he may be classified as a charismatic leader. Charisma comes from the Greek word-meaning gift. Not everyone has a charismatic leadership style. The employees of Southwest Airline had strong positive thoughts about Kelleher, which speak about the personal foundation of leadership, independent power and appeal.
There are several explanations why Kelleher can be considered a charismatic leader. The first is he created an emotional connection to the employees within the company. Employees trusted Kelleher and he engendered intense devotion to himself and the company (Inkpen & DeGroot, 2005). Executives were prepared to work for drastically smaller salaries than competing airlines. The employees embraced the values and caring traditions that Kelleher fashioned. Another example is the pilots passing up salary increases in return for stock options. This compromise helped Southwest Airline go on to be cost-effective in a waning industry. This act also confirmed the close emotional ties the pilots have to the company. They are ready to forgo pay increases in order to help the company grow.
Finally, Southwest Airline has created a strong relationship with the companyÐ²Ð‚â„¢s labor unions. The company does not struggle with long labor disputes. The employees and Southwest Airline executives collaborate and continue to go all-out for a healthy and loving work environment. These instances show that the employees of Southwest Airline have dedicated themselves to the mission of the company. This allegiance stems from their emotional ties to KelleherÐ²Ð‚â„¢s compelling leadership style.
Leaders Leading Leaders
As we gain knowledge of the leadership customs at Southwest Airline, we were reminded of Tre Cates of Silicon Mountain Magic who told us about his companyÐ²Ð‚â„¢s idea of hiring leaders in all levels of the company. From the beginning, Southwest Airline abandoned the traditional hierarchical corporate structure where leaders only subsist at the top, and everyone else is a Ð²Ð‚Ñšfollower.Ð²Ð‚Ñœ At Southwest Airline, control is not established by importance or title to any degree. In their book NUTS, Kevin and Jackie Frieburg offer the term Ð²Ð‚Ñšleader-collaboratorÐ²Ð‚Ñœ as more expressive than the usual Ð²Ð‚Ñšleader-followerÐ²Ð‚Ñœ to depict the energy they witnessed at Southwest Airline. Southwest Airline employees are authorized to act at all levels of the organization. The unusual Ð²Ð‚ÑšFuel from the HeartÐ²Ð‚Ñœ program was not a management team command. Instead, employees at all levels of the company recognized that the company they loved was under pressure due to high fuel prices, and many choose willingly to take pay decreases to help counterbalance the higher fuel prices and help ensure the continued existence of their company.
In another example, employees from different organizations within the company created an internal action team to examine ways to ease the companyÐ²Ð‚â„¢s reliance on major reservation systems that were owned by their competitors. One by one, the competition began eliminating Southwest Airline from its systems as Southwest Airline unveiled the Southwest Airline clones. By the time Jim Kelleher publicized in disappointment to the American Society of Travel Agents that Southwest Airline would be the first airline to go ticket-less, the industrial group was already well on their way to developing a feasible system.
Southwest Airline trusts that those on the frontline are best able to identify concerns and troubles and formulate solutions to do what is right for the company. These examples illustrate that Southwest Airline has appointed leaders at all levels of the company who are able to recognize problems and has empowered everyone to make the changes he, or she sees fit. As a result, Southwest Airline is able to adjust quickly and prosper.
Southwest Airline is considered the most successful airline company in the industry. Southwest Airline has embodied success not only from strong business plans, but also through strong leadership and an overpowering concentration on its employees. Southwest Airline takes action throughout the hiring process to make certain that they hire not only based on know-how and dexterity, but also attitude. The company seeks people with specific personality traits that will fit the company culture.
Another key to SouthwestÐ²Ð‚â„¢s success is the companyÐ²Ð‚â„¢s commitment to making employees the number one priority. This helps balance the employeesÐ²Ð‚â„¢ self-esteem sausages, which leads to greater productivity and quality of work. In addition, the company also appreciates and understands MaslowÐ²Ð‚â„¢s hierarchy of needs. SouthwestÐ²Ð‚â„¢s continued focus on nourishing employee needs leading to low turnover and high employee satisfaction. To keep employees satisfied the company fosters strong open communication. This open communication has helped Southwest Airline create a trustworthy relationship with its labor unions. Through this relationship the company has united with its employees to achieve common goals.
Finally, Southwest Airline can ascribe a large portion of its success to its position regarding leadership. Herb Kelleher used his personality to get the employees eager and emotionally tied to the company. This leadership stimulated employees to willingly give up pay increases in order to help the company succeed during a tough business year. Kelleher also helped foster a company that focused on hiring and building leaders not managers. His alternative methodology to allow all employees to be leaders has made the organization successful. Through the strong leadership, strong communication and strong employee focus, Southwest Airline continues to grow and is respected as one of the best companies to work for in America.
Champoux, J. (2006). Organizational behavior: integrating individuals, groups and organizations. 3rd ed. Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western.
Culberson, R. (2004). Lightening Bolts, Humor at work Ð²Ð‚â€œ An Interview with Southwest Airlines. Retrieved November 2, 2005 from www.funsulting.com.
Freiberg, K. & J. (1998). Nuts! : Southwest Airlines' crazy recipe for business and personal success. New York: Broadway Books.
Inkpen, C. & DeGroot V. (2005). Southwest Airlines 2005. Thunderbird Garvin School of International Management.
Kelleher, H. (1997). A Culture of Commitment. Retrieved November 2, 2005 from www.pfdf.org.
Kochan, T. (1999). Rebuilding the social contract at work: lessons from leading cases. #WP09 ed.: Institute for Work and Employment research, MIT Sloan School of Management.
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