United Airlines lives in values fantasyland

By now everyone knows what United Airlines did last week. But most people don’t know why. There’s been a lot of talk on algorithms and over-booking, but the real reason is plain and simple. United’s CEO lives in a values fantasyland.

United clearly has a culture of “nobody cares about passengers” or this incident could never have happened. On its website, United claims one of its core values is “warm and welcoming.” And another is that they “make decisions with facts and empathy.”

This is just another example of a company that has what I call “bumper sticker” values. “Bumper sticker” values look good in an annual report. “Bumper sticker” values make the CEO feel warm and fuzzy. United isn’t the only company that lives in a values fantasyland. Wells Fargo is another example. They claim they “do what’s right for the customer,” yet in actual practice they defrauded customers. Uber claims it is an inclusive company, yet it has a toxic culture.

The CEO is often unaware of the disconnect between the bumper sticker and real values of the company. They often don’t recognize that until a crisis occurs. When a crisis does occur, the CEO is oftentimes asked to step down. In most cases, they should. It is the CEO’s job to create positive cultures, not to defend toxic ones.

But that is just what Oscar Muñoz did last week. His initial response was to defend his employees. Do you know why? Because he drank the Kool-Aid and believed the bumper sticker that the United culture is “warm and welcoming.” Since he believed his employees are always “warm and welcoming,” of course he would conclude the passenger was in the wrong. A perfect example of a CEO living in a values fantasyland.

If you are a CEO, it’s time for a hard look to see if are you living in a values fantasyland before a United-like disaster strikes you.



It’s time for a values check-up. However, don’t have the human resources people ask employees what the company values are. They will tell you what they think you want to hear. Don’t declare what you think the values are and expect people to behave accordingly. That never works. Here is what you should and shouldn’t do:

  • DON’T make this an exercise for the human resources department. If it is to be taken seriously, it has to come right from the top. People need to know that values matter.
  • DO have an outside professional survey company conduct an anonymous survey and ask every single employee in complete confidence what they think the company values are. You may be astounded by the results.
  • If the underlying values are not the same as the bumper sticker, DO find out why. What is driving the difference? Chances are you’ll find operating managers are the root cause. Or you might be the root cause. As an example, many operating managers don’t give a hoot about anything other than results. Of course, results matter. No company can prosper without positive results. But results without appropriate values are often temporary, or in the case of United, only illusory.
  • DO a reality check. Does your company have the “right” values? By that I mean values that serve your employees, customers, community, and shareholders equally. Values that form what I call a “culture by design, not default.” If not, it’s time to change them.
  • DON’T assume you have the “right” values — you may, but I doubt it. Start at the top and go layer by layer. Those who don’t believe in, won’t abide by, or demonstrate the values have to go. This sounds simple, but it is not easy. It is, however, essential. If your top managers ignore the values everyone else will. This is a multiyear process that you must undertake carefully and delicately, otherwise the business will crash and burn. Take it one step at a time, one manager at a time. Once you start replacing managers for values reasons, the whole organization will begin to behave differently. People will applaud you for doing so.
  • DON’T let anybody in the front door that doesn’t fit in with your values. Interview potential new employees with values in mind. Don’t just state the values and ask if they agree. Of course they will agree — they want the job. Ask them what their values are. Ask them what values they would admire in a company. If their values don’t match with company values, don’t hire them no matter how good they are. Otherwise, they will be like an infectious disease on the organization.

Bottom line, make values a key part of performance evaluation. Don’t make this a check-the-box exercise. Make values the standard for promotions and compensation increases, and make values a key determinate in terminations. By instilling the right set of values, you'll save your company from crash landing.

Steven L. Blue is the president and CEO of Miller Ingenuity, a railway manufacturing company, and author of American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right. For more information, please visit www.SteveBlueCEO.com, www.milleringenuity.com, and connect with Blue on Twitter, @SteveBlueCEO.

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