United Airlines – where’s the empathy?

Written by Jennifer Mahony

United Airlines has had a rough few weeks.  First, there were the leggings.  Then came the passengers.  Over the course of a few days, one passenger was forcibly removed from a flight and left bloody from the experience; another forced to give up his full-fare first-class seat because of someone of higher priority needed to fly.  There has been no shortage of articles analysing every aspect of these situations.


One article, an opinion piece appearing on Huffington Post addressed a lack of empathy and the culture of victim-blaming, stating that the defenders of United revealed in themselves  “a fundamental refusal, or inability, to comprehend someone else’s perspective, and a need to fortify their belief in a world in which something bad can happen to another person only if that person has done something to deserve it.”


In another piece, appearing in the LA Times, Julia Underwood, a business professor at Azusa Pacific University was quoted as saying, [United is] so locked into their policies, there’s no room for empathy.”


Both articles touch on one of the primary drivers of unresolved conflict: a lack of empathy.  Empathy is not a nice-to-have; it is the essential check and balance against our inherent self-interest and need for control. 


As I said in a recent article, we need to be able to understand other people’s stuff.  Understanding other people’s stuff is the one way we can ensure that when things don’t go to plan we can meaningfully understand why.  Refusing or being unable to comprehend the other perspectives on a problem limits the options for correction and provides incomplete resolution.  One of the easiest ways to do this is to ask questions.  Something as simple as, How has this affected you?” or “Help me understand why this is important to you?” can provide a treasure trove of information, perspective, and understanding.


Empathy is also the counter-balance to inflexible processes.  A culture that focuses on rigid application of processes and protocols instead of why the policies exist can lead to poor and unintended outcomes.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t need processes and polices.  Good ones ensure that people and situations are treated fairly and equitably while also focusing on the overall intent of the process and policy.  They recognise the potential perspectives and provide clarity to those applying them. 


Consider, for example, a process and policy that requires people flying as an employee’s family member to dress in business-appropriate way.  The airline’s perspective is that these customers are representatives of the airline and are therefore part of the airline’s overall image. Dressing in a business-appropriate way ensures a good image for the airline and reflects a level of respect for the transportation being provided.  Based on this one perspective, it sounds perfectly reasonable.  But there is more than just the airline’s perspective in play.  What about other customers?  How would they know that that someone is flying on an employee family ticket?   What about the perspective of the family members flying?  What is an appropriate age to dress in a business-appropriate way?  What is business-appropriate for a child?  Is business-appropriate based on the family member’s occupation?  What about the perspective of the crew?  What if for them, they need to feel respected for the role they play and the service they provide?  When multiple perspectives are considered, we inherently produce an empathetic response.  It becomes easier to understand the difference between policy intent, individual needs, and the desired outcome in a particular situation. 


However, when we become slavish adherents to processes and policies, we divest ourselves of decision-making and creative problem-solving.  How many times have we heard and said, “I’m sorry, but that’s not/that is our policy?” Our policies shouldn’t become more important than the reason for the policy. While a policy may be set in stone, sometimes life gets in the way and individual circumstances need to be considered.


One of my favourite quotes from the book Getting to Yes is “Both sides can always be worse off than they are now.  Chess looks like a zero-sum game; if one loses, the other wins—until a dog trots by and knocks over the table, spills the beer, and leaves you both worse off than before.” (Fisher & Ury, 1981, p. 70)


In this case, the chess game is the rigid policy and blinded perspective.  The dog is the perfect storm of humanity, leggings, grounded flights, and an impossible squeeze on how to get people from one place to another with limited resource and time. 


We cannot prevent conflict.  But we can manage it better.  Empathy needs to be at the heart of every interaction we have as human beings – no matter how brief or inconsequential the meeting.