Safety Net

This article is about how employees are empowered by safe working conditions to help a company maintain a competitive edge when their leaders create such conditions

I was moved by a story about an airplane passenger whom was asked to disembark her flight on the tarmac before the plane took off. The airline had learned that her son had been involved in an automotive collision and they wanted to both inform and help her travel to her son whom had fallen into a coma after the collision. The airline went well above and beyond the call of duty when it learned of the tragedy by taking proactive steps to deliver the news in a compassionate manner to the passenger, acted consciously from the moment she returned to the terminal by escorting her to a primate waiting room, expediting the boarding process for the night flight (free of charge) to the city her son was in, giving her complementary services during the flight (also free of charge), packed her a lunch for when she left the airline for the hospital, and even followed up the entire event by calling her the next day to check in on her and her son.

The airline responsible for this sequence of events is Southwest Airlines, and this story is an example of why it has loyal customers and has outperformed its competitors year after year.

One of my favorite TED talks is by Simon Sinek who articulates how the military rewards those who sacrifice and put themselves in harm’s way to protect and help others. In contrast, he explains that the corporate culture rewards individuals who exploit those around them to achieve success. As a result, the environment of the military fosters trust and sacrifice within its ranks compared to most corporations, and this is the primary reason behind their consistent unity and success.

When leaders ask their employees to “trust and cooperate” with one another, the problem is that one can’t “instruct” people to do so as these are feelings arise only when they feel safe. Safety can only come from within the organization since the outside world is full of dangers: a fluctuating economy and competition vying for market share. If the internal conditions are wrong, employees spend their time and energy fending themselves from one another which inherently weakens the organization. When people feel safe they maximize their strengths and collaborate to face the external challenges. This is precisely what great leaders understand and foster, so that remarkable things begin to happen in the company.

Southwest Airlines has a better culture than some of its competitors, and that simple fact empowers its employees to make decisions to the best of their abilities without fearing their leaders. When Simon began his TED talk, he mentioned how the airline he was flying with was treating it’s passengers like cattle, and when he confronted the employee about it, she mentioned that if she didn’t follow the protocol she may lose her job. This mentality would not have allowed the Southwest passenger to come home as soon as possible when her loved one had been harmed with little to no inconvenience, and I wish more companies would follow Southwest’s lead.