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« A Call for Change at United: A Statement from Annie and Perry Klebahn | Main | On the Marginal Utility of Pure Economists »


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Regarding your first question, I think AnneL may have identified a fifth category between mutual obligation and indifference which would be fear driven box checking. This would be the case where individuals follow procedures out of a fear of retribution rather than an endorsement of said procedures. This would seem to be what the pilot experienced. This stage would be a slippery slope that takes you from mutual obligation to indifference and then contempt. Perhaps this is what happens when mutual obligation becomes "smart talk" without meaningful follow through from leadership?
As for the second question, I take a page from Kotter's Heart of Change. United needs to feel this fiasco as a crisis and use it to motivate the customer service culture change throughout the organization. The management has a lot on its plate to make the Continental merger a success, but this transition period is also their opportunity to steer their people and customers back into friendlier skies. By all means, leverage bright spots and intrinsic motivation as other commenters suggest, but first United needs the desire to change and this could be their chance.


United's handling of this event is, yes, disgusting. It is so far outside most people's social norms that the horrified reaction and abundance of scolding is entirely appropriate.

But your reaction surprised me. "shocked to find gambling in this establishment " much?

United's processes and procedures aren't unusual. And you, of all people, should know that. These managerial practices are what business schools and consulates teach. These methods are amazingly effective at increasing the efficiencies of the organizations to which they are applied. But you know that.

These methods have hard to measure side effect, externalities if you will. Those externalities are very profitable. But, you know that too.

I have yet to see a meaningful effort on the part of the management elite to address these externalities. And honestly I don't see any incentives are for them to address them.

Just to take one example. I think we can assume that United has arranged it so the gate and plane's crew have strong common cause to turn around the plane ASAP. This easy to measure, and crafting the incentives so each member of the team knows that any slacking off will effect the rest of the team is trival. So it is no surprise, and probably part of their training, that any issue that delays the turn around is enqueued until after the the team's task is completed. Kicking exceptions down field so they don't add friction to the main task is standard practice. Structuring things to the team members are entangled in a set of obligations to each other to help assure the main task gets maximum focus is too. Nothing unusual here. You know this, right?


Taking on that second difficult challenge - a starting point for me is at what level do you try and intervene. Individual? Team? Business unit? The whole shabang? I tend to think that the smaller units are the place to look to institute change, almost as small counter-cultural units against the bigger cultural norm.

And then you run into the challenge of scaling. Yes, you may get it done with one team or a few. But how do you stretch it across the whole organization and make it a norm?


Re: How do you get back felt accountability when it is lost
My first thought is that is there any place or any instance within the organisation that is, if not a bright spot, at least a less dark spot? In an organisation as large as United, I'd expect the contempt can't be perfect just as felt accountability can't be perfect in better organisations. I'd wonder then how that exception could be exploited.

The example you provided with the pilot suggests that the underlying sense of accountability still exists but is suppressed by policy. Is there a way to create mutual support for people like this so they can maintain hope and, I suppose, what we could call resistance?

Is there weakness in current systems and policy from the perspective of what is currently valued by United management, that is cost? How might we highlight those weaknesses to begin to undermine the status quo, using their own value system, and shift toward something better?


Thanks for this post! It gives me a lot to think about. These sorts of problems affect public schools as well, and your question about what to do once felt accountability is lost is especially relevant. As a principal, it's really hard to change the direction of a school where people (teachers or students) have been ground down and show up only because they feel they don't have other choices. That doesn't exist everywhere, but when it does, it's hard to watch. How do you train and support someone who is crazy enough to take on that challenge?

An underlying thread that resonated with me: Felt accountability is internal to the organization and precedes external accountability. Elmore talks about this for schools, but in this case, the what most shocks us about the United story is the disenfranchisement inside the organization muffles their attention to outside signals. My mind keeps going to schools and their relationships with parents and policy.


I'm not certain of how this fits into your categories but I keep thinking about a situation that I have observed in a number of organizations over the years. It seems to often follow a period of growth and an accompanying overwhelm. Lots of rules, rigidity from above around following the rules, a primary directive connected to avoidance of risk/liability (lots of talk about making sure that the organization doesn't get sued). Everyone wants to do right but feels helpless or fearful that well intended actions could have negative consequences.


On your last question, Daniel Pink has it right: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

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