Before making any concrete judgments on the author’s proposal, I think we need some more specifics. The author of this article focuses on team accountability as a key element of the performance preview method, but I wonder how that would really work. For example, the employee is accountable to his or her manager, who may give a positive or negative review, which will affect compensation, advancement, and possibly the employee’s continuing employment. But how is the manager held accountable? Does this get raised in his or her review? Or is it simply a matter of putting the ball in both courts and forcing employee and manager to say this is where I failed and this is what I can do better. I think the later is a valuable and useful idea, but, while I can see utility in the former approach as well, I am not sure most managers would be willing to adopt it.

Would most managers be willing to adopt a system where they are accountable for every employee who fails? I do not think so. Sure there are many struggling employees who could succeed if their manager found a way to utilize the employee’s strengths and give the employee the feedback and support they need to succeed. But there are also employees out there who are just not good employees and for whom no amount of support or feedback will inspire improved performance. From the manager’s perspective, would you want to tie your future compensation, advancement, and employment to each and every employee who comes under your supervision? While that happens to some degree in the current system—if you cannot manage your team as a whole to succeed you are not succeeding as a manager—it seems a bit extreme to take this down to an individual level. In some cases, there is only so much the manager can do. If the manager is doing everything they can, I am not sure how helpful it is to penalize an otherwise successful manager because they cannot motivate an employee who is a true problem.

Southwest Airlines Case

September 24, 2009

The primary problem facing Southwest airlines is figuring out how to deal with the threat posed by the low cost offerings from United and Continental. The company must also find a way not to lose its “family feeling” despite its recent growth.  These problems are, to some extent, intertwined as finding a solution to the later problem can assist in the resolution of the former problem.  As the case study indicates, Southwest’s biggest asset is its people. They are what set it apart from the other airlines. So, if Southwest can keep its family atmosphere, which appears to play a big role in the performance of its employees, that can help facilitate its ability to remain successful in the face of this new competition.

Southwest looks to hire different kinds of employees than other airlines and these people are the ones who have made Southwest a success. They give the airline its quirky personality, they help ensure quick turnarounds and on-time departures, they represent the airline and help set it apart by providing good customer service with a sense of humor and style.  While Southwest’s hiring methodology is no doubt a big factor in why the airline is able to provide all around excellent service, the airline’s “family feeling” appears to play a big role here as well. This atmosphere makes employees feel more connected to the company and helps keep employee satisfaction high. Happy employees are productive employees and, as Southwest’s success shows, these employees put on their best face and provide excellent customer service and all around performance that keeps customers coming back to Southwest. 

United and Continental, however, appear to operate under very different workplace cultures from that at Southwest, which may present a significant obstacle to the success of these new ventures. As noted in the case study, complaints and doubts already seem to be surfacing amongst employees with regard to these new ventures.  If employees are unhappy with the changes and any salary or benefit sacrifices they may have to make, that will dampen their enthusiasm for the new venture and result in less satisfactory customer service. Thus, if Southwest can maintain its family atmosphere and keep employees engaged, happy, and providing excellent service, it will have a significant advantage over its new low cost competitors. The difficulty, however, is in figuring out how to maintain that “family feeling” while the company continues to grow.

Because of the increasing number of Southwest employees and the fact that many of these employees are scattered across the county, it will be difficult for Southwest to maintain its “family feeling” on a company wide basis. With that in mind, I would advise a change in emphasis towards maintaining that atmosphere using a station-by-station approach. Maintaining and nurturing this work environment should be a primary focus of each station manager.  For example, while it may be impossible for the CEO to regularly show up and log face time with the employees at each station; the station manager should step into this role and do his or her part to maintain the team approach that CEO Herb Kelleher has instilled. Likewise the station managers should organize team building activities and celebrations within their stations. If possible, it would be helpful to continue to allow employees to have interactions with the CEO as that seems to be something that has worked for Southwest in the past, but as the company grows that will become more and more difficult. I would recommend, however, that the CEO make time to visit each station at least once every few years and interact with the employees at the station. This will be especially important if there is ever a change in leadership at the top of the company, as it will allow employees to get to know the new boss and help maintain the atmosphere that Kelleher brought to the company. 

Maintaining the “family feeling” of the company with an eye towards maintaining Southwest’s excellent service reputation is, of course, only one piece of the puzzle, albeit an important one. People fly Southwest for a variety of reasons—because of their tendency to have on-time departures and arrivals, because of the efficient boarding process, because the seats may be more comfortable then competitors, and, of course, for cost reasons. But, as the case study illustrates, Southwest’s workforce and the attitudes that have been engendered in that workforce provide the airline with a big advantage over United and Continental when it comes to running a low cost carrier. Because the “family feeling” of the company appears to play such a big role in maintaining these attitudes, if Southwest can maintain that feeling as it continues to grow, Southwest will, in all likelihood, continue to succeed despite the entrance of United and Continental into the low cost carrier market.

What a sad, terrible story for all involved, but especially for the parents, who have lost their daughter. It is sad that it takes something like this to get people to rethink their policies and procedures and make sure that all bases are covered. Given what is on the line in these transplant situations—someone’s life—you would think hospitals and transplant groups would be constantly reviewing and revising their procedures and protocols to make sure these things do not get missed, but it seems like that only happens when something like this occurs. And, as the one doctor who insists nothing has ever gone wrong at his hospital demonstrates, sometimes even that is not enough to convince people to examine what they are doing and make sure nothing is being missed.

That being said, one thing that is not really discussed in this article is that in situations like this, where you have human beings making decisions and taking action with minimal time for review, mistakes are going to happen. People make mistakes. That is true regardless of whether you talk about doctors, hospitals, bus drivers, mechanics, or whatever. You cannot eliminate all human error, especially in situations like these. All you can do is try to minimize it as best you can and apologize when things go wrong.  That is something no one wants to hear, especially in cases where you are talking about someone losing their life because of a mistake like this one, but that does not make the fact that mistakes can and will happen any less true.

This article is really timely given the on going debate over healthcare reform that is currently taking place. What this article shows is that employers have been put in a really tough spot. Our health insurance system is structured so that employers are often the primary providers of insurance, but people are not really comfortable when employers try and restrict what they can do as a way to help keep costs down. Employees hate having their employer interfere in their personal lives, but they also hate paying higher premiums. So, what is an employer to do? While I am not a fan of having employers manage our lives, it seems reasonable that, since they are footing the healthcare bill, they should be able to set some guidelines on what their employees can do. And, in this case, Scotts has given employees a choice—they can comply with the healthcare requirements or pay more in premiums. It is up to the employee to make that choice. That seems reasonable to me.

I am curious, with regard to the probationary employee fired for smoking, whether he was notified upfront that termination could be a consequence if he smoked. Given how thorough most legal departments are, I would imagine that notice would have been provided. Thus, the question becomes whether he read the information and understood what the policies were and what could happen if he did not comply. My guess is he either did not read it or did and ignored it. I believe that cases similar to his have been thrown out in other states, so it will be interesting to see what happens here.

I have been fortunate in my career to have never worked for a boss who was a screamer, but I have plenty of friends who have worked in such situations. Of course they were miserable in those situations and pretty much spent most of their time looking for chances to leave. I really cannot imagine working in such a situation—I think I would have to get out as soon as possible. For me, it would be almost impossible to be motivated to do anything, much less put out quality work, if I had someone screaming at me all the time. As the article points out, I think more employers are catching on to the detrimental effect such people can have on productivity and morale, which is why there seems to be fewer such individuals in the workforce. I definitely think this is a step in the right direction. Sure many of us work in high pressure, high stress environments, but that should not be a reason for someone to scream at or belittle someone else. If anything, that should be a reason to avoid such behavior, to ensure that employees remain motivated and productive, and that your coworkers have your back if an emergency situation arises.

When I read articles like this one, it always amazes me that it took employers so long to come to the realization that happier employees result in more productive employees, which results in increased profits. It seems like it would be common sense.  If employees are miserable or distracted they are not going to produce and will not add value to your organization.

While the transition to an employee engagement approach has been going on, what I have found interesting is how resistant many businesses are to changing over to a more employee friendly approach. Even when faced with the growing mountain of data detailing the successful results produced by engaging employees,  many employers are resistant to this approach. I think a lot of it simply comes down to employers taking a “this is how we have always done it and it has always worked” approach. Fortunately for those who work at employers not swayed by the statistics, it seems like additional forces have been pushing employers in that direction. For example, there is a level of prestige that comes with appearing on a “best place to work” list and I think, for those not swayed by the statistical evidence, the desire for recognition, or at least to not fall behind the competition, may push these stragglers to adopt a more engagement oriented approach.

I do wonder however, if, in light of the recent economic downturn, employers will start to revert back to the old way of doing things. While the employee engagement approach is hot right now, will employers continue to invest the time and effort required to develop new ways to engage their employees and implement these programs? Or will this approach fall victim to the cost cutting currently underway at many employers, who may believe in this approach, but may not want to spend the time and effort necessary to implement or maintain it?

As a former United Airlines frequent flyer, what stood out from this article was the flyertalk poster who commented that, based on the poor customer service he typically received on United Airlines flights, Captain Flanagan’s actions came across as representing his own standards more than the company’s.  My wife and I stopped flying United Airlines around the time this article was written, in large part because of the poor customer service, so that comment really hit home for me. It really speaks to the impact negative employees can have on customer perceptions that, in this article highlighting Captain Flanagan’s excellent attitude and customer service, what stands out to this former United Airlines customer is the negative point made regarding United Airlines’ overall customer service performance.

Clearly Captain Flanagan knows that, in a competitive industry like the airline industry, employee attitude really does have a huge impact on customer satisfaction. The effect here is two fold. Firstly, customers really do appreciate someone who cares about what they are doing and makes sure that the customer knows that their business is appreciated. Secondly, this type of attitude is infectious amongst coworkers. For example, when I have flown with pilots like Captain Flanagan, the rest of the flight crew always seemed to be in top form—far more personable and helpful than the usual flight crew.

The opposite is also true of course. It only takes one employee with a really negative attitude to ruin a customer’s experience. If the customer can tell that the employee does not want to be there and could not care less about the customer’s needs, that customer is going to have a negative experience and it is going to color that customer’s perception of the company as a whole. With the advent of the internet, even a one off negative experience can become a real problem, as customers can easily spread the word about their negative experience, something that can take a real bite out of any business’s bottom line.

For me, this article highlights two challenges for managers. If you have employees who have a malleable theory, then you need to ensure you give them appropriate feedback to encourage them to maintain that theory and not start to drift towards a fixed theory. While the article notes that a malleable theory can be learned, the fact that praise of intelligence versus effort causes people to move towards a fixed theory indicates that a fixed theory can be learned as well. When dealing with employees who have a malleable theory, you need to make sure you nurture and support that approach, since the end result is likely to be a more successful and productive employee.

If, on the other hand, you have an employee or employees with a fixed theory approach, you need to understand how to work with them so that they can learn a malleable theory.  By teaching them this new theory, you can show them that they can overcome the challenges they face and perform at the level that they desire and that you expect of them.

This article or something like it should be required reading for all managers. I think most people have a natural tendency to label those who do not meet our expectations as unable to do so, and, with that in mind, I believe it is important that those responsible for managing others understand that there really is a self fulfilling prophecy effect. If you make it clear to your subordinates that you do not think they are capable of performing, they will ultimately continue to live down to your preset expectations. It is unfortunate that, in many cases, those of us tasked with helping other employees learn, improve, and grow as employees are actually creating and reinforcing the barriers that prevent them from achieving at the level we expect them to perform at.

It is amazing how powerful persuasion—both positive and negative—can be. As highlighted in this blog posting, the simple act of telling someone they cannot improve can have such a profoundly negative impact on that person’s actual performance. To me, this illustrates the importance of keeping a positive attitude with one’s employees and encouraging them to keep working on improving their skills. As the author points out, negative feedback provided in a way that conveys a belief that the employee cannot improve simply encourages employees to avoid things that may result in negative feedback, something which will only serve to worsen the situation.

As a manager, I find this article somewhat vindicating of my management approach. Generally speaking, there is usually some positive that can be found in any output from an employee. In assessing the employee’s performance and providing feedback, I do my best to point out the good things while also noting areas where the employee can improve. I think its best to focus on steps the employee can take to implement this improvement, while using language that conveys to the employee that you believe he or she is capable of performing at the level you want. I have had a good deal of success with this approach in my short time as a manager, so it is nice to see that there is actual research that backs up this management approach.

This study is an interesting counterpoint to some of the views expressed by the women interviewed for the Wall Street Journal article. Together these articles seem to indicate that while some women may view this flirtatious activity as helpful to their careers, it may in fact be hurting their ability to advance.  Interestingly, one factor not addressed in the study is the age of the women engaging and not engaging in these activities. The Wall Street Journal article indicates that it is the younger generation of women who are more likely to engage in these activities as opposed to the previous generation who tend to be more conservative. It would therefore be interesting to see if that viewpoint held up in a study like the one conducted by Tulane.

I think its also noteworthy that the actions people admitted to in the Tulane study are far more overt than the flirtatious conversation and banter that seemed to be the type of flirtation envisioned by those interviewed for the Wall Street Journal article. I wonder if people were simply more willing to admit to having done these things because of the anonymous nature of the study, as opposed to the direct interview format of the article. Certainly the activities discussed in the Tulane article are far more problematic from a sexual harassment and appropriate workplace behavior standpoint, so it is easy to see why doing these things would hold someone back.