Last week an engine on a Southwest Airlines’ flight threw off a blade, resulting in serious damage to the engine casing and fuselage of the plan. A window was blown out, and one of the passengers lost her life, while seven others sustained injuries. For the next 20 minutes, until the plane was able to land safety in Philadelphia, over 100 passengers lived in fear that the plane would either fall from the sky or crash on the runway. Fortunately, the pilot pulled off a safe landing.
Passengers reported that, within a short time, Southwest had sent them a $1,000 voucher for future travel and a $5,000 check. My initial reaction was that Southwest was smart: treat people well and they’re less likely to sue you. But when Southwest was approached by the media to confirm the story about the payments that passengers had relayed, here is what the airlines said:
Ours is a company and culture built on relationships. Many of the Customers on that flight have flown with us before. We can confirm the communication and gesture are authentic and heartfelt.
So was it? Was it authentic and heartfelt?
There is no way of knowing, but I’m inclined to give Southwest the benefit of the doubt, for two reasons. First, Southwest personnel have always treated me well. They’ve not only conducted themselves professionally and with courtesy, but also with a healthy dose of humor. If you make me laugh, you’ve got me. In brief, Southwest has engendered goodwill with me. Second, airline personnel helped me, beyond the call of duty, when I was stranded in a city far from home last year after being released by an emergency room late in the evening following a traumatic auto accident. I couldn’t have asked for more. They made my airport and airplane experience as good as it could have been considering the circumstances.
So, while I realize there is no way to be sure, I’m going to believe there are people who work for that airlines who in fact have authentic and heartfelt motivations.
Unfortunately, I have accumulated cynicism from a lifetime of helping clients manage disasters or simply managing people (mainly employees). It’s not that I’ve never encountered authentic and heartfelt gestures before. I have. But I’ve also encountered a lot of phoniness and fake concern. And a lot of shotty treatment of employees, too. All of that inauthenticity has instilled me with a skeptical bias.
Motivations are less susceptible to skepticism, of course, if there is nothing to be gained by the person or company who is making the gesture. For instance, if a company provides a meaningful gift to a retiring or departing employee who has contributed much to the company over a number of years, it’s more likely to count than if a severance payment is conditioned on obtaining a general release.
Yet so much of the modern-day employer-employee relationship, and the customer-vendor relationship, is merely transactional. It has no meaning beyond the costs and benefits attached thereto.
I think people long for deeper, more meaningful relationships. And are often discontented with their employment relationships because, deep down, they know they’re considered by their employers to be nothing more than “headcount,” “overhead,” or a “unit of production,” and not a real person — someone who wants and needs to be valued and appreciated, perhaps more than anything else.
I remember a discussion I had years ago with the managing partner of my law firm. It concerned compensation. He acted like the only thing that mattered was the level of pay. And I remember saying that pay wasn’t even the most important thing. I don’t think he bought it for a second.
I still don’t think money is the most important thing. In a world of superficiality, self-centeredness, and ingratitude, I think many people long for authenticity and heartfelt relationships. Not only within their families and churches, but also at work, where we spend most of our time.
I want to believe Southwest’s communication and gesture were authentic and heartfelt. The desire to want to believe it is revealing in its own right.