Stephen Brashear, Getty Images
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg could use some crisis management lessons.

'A' Is for Empathy

March 25, 2019
The first response to a crisis, large or small, shouldn't be an outpouring of confidence.

A friend and I had just boarded the plane to Florida and found our seats. Our school-age daughters were sitting a few rows behind us. I was already feeling a little apprehensive about granting them this independence when a police officer, handcuffs clasped to his belt, entered the cabin. He walked to the third or fourth row and apprehended a dark-skinned, middle-aged man, escorting him off the plane. The man’s young daughter, who looked to be about kindergarten age, was left in the row by herself, watching this happen. 

People exchanged looks of fear and incomprehension. The human brain loves narrative, so in our heads we were trying out different stories: Was this man being targeted by ICE? Was he on the terrorist list? Was he being wrongly accused of something? What was going on?

Turns out, the man’s bag was too big to qualify as a personal item and he had refused to pay a $50 carry-on fee. He paid (presumably), he was let back on and reunited with his daughter. 

I wondered about this show of authority. Had the airline not learned anything from the United Airlines incident where a doctor was dragged off the plane for refusing to give up his seat? That went viral and damaged the company’s reputation. 

I suspect that like me, some fellow passengers were also on edge because it was just days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, and Boeing was still insisting to the world that its 737 Max 8 planes were faultless and did not need to be grounded. 

In all three of these incidents—United, Boeing and, on a much smaller level, the budget airline I was flying—the initial response was brash rather than humane. In the airline incidents, customers were treated like criminals when they weren’t doing anything criminal. In the Boeing incident, CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s main message was confidence in his company and his jets when he should have been acknowledging a terrible tragedy, expressing sincere sympathy to all who lost family members in the crash, and recommending the grounding of all 737 Max 8’s until an investigation determined they were safe to fly. 

I find it astounding, in an era when any random person can be shamed around the world for bad behavior caught on video, that some corporate leaders are still so removed from their customers that during a crisis, they reflexively respond with risk management or corporate attorney-speak instead of reflexively responding with empathy. This culture of ass-covering and victim-blaming trickles down to their employees as well when they must handle their own, smaller crises.

Southwest Airlines, like Boeing, had a near-flawless record in 2018 when it lost a passenger after an engine failure /emergency landing, note Leonard Marcus and Eric McNulty, authors of the forthcoming You’re It: Crisis, Change and How to Lead When It Matters Most. Unlike Boeing, Southwest did not spend the following hours chest-pounding about its stellar safety record. Instead CEO Gary Kelly (pictured above) got on YouTube, expressed his condolences, and acknowledged it was a sad day in the company’s history. “That didn’t cost him any money, but that investment of himself made such a difference in the midst of a crisis,” said Marcus.

McNulty asked me how I thought the airline should have responded to the situation on my flight. Instead of summoning a police officer, I said, how about letting the man off with a warning and not making a scene about the $50?

It’s always best to treat people as fellow humans. If a situation involving customers demands quick action and you have to decide between empathy and risk management, I say take a deep breath and go with empathy. Leave the attorneys in the background. They already have enough to do.

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