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  • Writer's picturetony

I Feel, Your Gain

This is a follow on from my prior post about Southwest Airlines and Corporate Culture. This was also published over 10 years ago in my internal NSA blog. There's a bit of modern commentary at the end.


I Feel, Your Gain 2012.02.16 - 05:39 pm

My prior post on the culture of Southwest Airlines has some excellent comments from readers, but I promised to pull one thought out of the threads. It's a data point about how an institution deliberately defines and reinforces its culture - not as a feel-good thing, but as a business imperative.


When my wife applied to Southwest 8+ years ago, she described the process to me (the supportive spouse). After she made it through the initial screening and interview, the next round was a group interview. Several candidates sit in an informal group with a couple of HR people and a couple of volunteer Southwest Flight Attendants. The questions included things like, "describe an occasion where you had to deal with the public in a difficult situation, and how you defused the situation, or how you managed that..." or "talk about a time when you were in an embarrassing situation, how you felt, and how you dealt with that....". Susan had a fresh and recent example, and it went well enough to get her the job.

A couple of years later, I went to Harvard ("Hah-Vahd" for some of you) for a week of remedial executive training. One of our lecturers started describing her extensive case study of....wait for it...Southwest Airlines. When she started talking about their hiring process, my interest was piqued. It was the academic's view of the exact process my wife had described to me. And when she described the group interview part of the process, it was fascinating.

In the group interview, they are not paying much attention to the person answering the question. They covertly watch the rest of the applicants for their reactions, looking for signs of ... *natural empathy*. Why? Because their research showed that natural empathy is a highly desirable character attribute for getting along with new people, particularly for defusing tense situations.

No wonder Susan got the job. No finer natural empath can be found.

When I later described this to my wife, her eyes opened wide. Of course! She knew something was odd about the interviewers' actions but could not put her finger on it at the time. The term that she used afterward as she described it to me? "They were taking notes at the wrong time." A brilliant bit of intuition.

Overall, I find this example fascinating. The company had apparently thought a lot, at the top level, about the culture they wanted and about the attributes of an effective workforce (for Flight Attendants). And they put in place the processes to build and amplify that culture. (There are other desired attributes in this business, of course. Susan said that if you could not stay "upbeat" enough during your training, you were let go).

So NOW imagine that auditorium full of *carefully screened*, upbeat, empathetic people armed with ThunderStix, Beach balls, and blaring music! Help!


Comments from 2023.

Leadership doesn't get to dictate or choose company culture. It flows or emerges as a "network effect" from the collective beliefs, structures, and actions of the entire workplace. But to successfully establish and manage culture, leadership must set the "tone" for the organization (define and speak to the company we want to be), align the business machinery (hiring, recognition, messaging, etc.), and, most importantly, model the desired behavior.

In the middle of my career, I had a significant role in our organization's "Business Process Re-engineering" (BPR) program (a trendy, mid-90s management thing). I refer to this as the "Great Education, Terrible Tuition" phase of my management education. When I say I was in the middle of my career, I mean it near-literally. I was in "middle management," still doing a modest amount of technical work, but also getting a chance to be on the sidelines of the "High Table" and watch the senior people in action. I knew enough to realize that there were a lot of problems to fix and a lot of work ahead to prepare for a complex future.

The Biggest Boss led this program personally.

I thought, "Yes, there's hope!"

But I was on the sideline of a meeting when he turned to one of his senior leaders and said, "We seem to have a culture problem in the workforce. I am putting you in charge of fixing it."

I thought, "Oh no, we're doomed!"

After the first few months, I watched the overall BPR program stall for various reasons. As the senior-most of the junior participants, I took a chance and got a 1-1 with the Biggest Boss. I started with nice things, thanking him for his massive commitment of time and leadership to the program. Then I offered the opinion that people were getting restless, looking for the big, positive changes that were implied. He answered, "When we get the processes right, we'll make better decisions. Then people will see." (Remember that BPR was all about re-designing all of your organizational processes into alignment.)

I countered, "If you make decisions on just a few of the issues that have been sitting on the table for years and explain why, people will understand what you value, and they'll get most of the processes "right" without much help."

He did not change his mind but was very gracious, and my career survived my impertinence. Several months later, he masterfully celebrated the successful end of the program. But I had a hard time figuring out what had changed.

If there's a lesson here, it's something like this.

When leadership embarks on a "culture campaign," it's with high hopes and noble intentions. But it's actually a very risky thing.

If you are in a leadership role and you see the need for organizational "culture change," focus on your own beliefs, messaging, and actions first. Then it will be much easier to put in place the "machinery" for sharing, scaling, and growth. Otherwise, you are running a VERY risky change management program. If reality doesn't live up to the lofty pronouncements, bumper stickers, slogans, posters, etc., ; if there's a gap between a "stated" culture and your practice, well, the people in the workforce are rarely fooled.



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