Lessons from United Airlines: Purpose and Values Should Always Override Rules

There are many rich lessons to be learned from the recent violent eviction of a passenger by United Airlines.

There is one lesson that I would like to focus on in this post: purpose, values and empowerment should always override rules.

Let’s start with a time capsule summary…

9 April 2017: United Airlines invoked its right to ask passengers to give up their seats as it had overbooked the flight.  One passenger who was asked to leave the plane refused to do so. Airport police were called in and forcibly removed him. There was a struggle. He was injured, requiring hospitalisation. The story went wild on social media. There was condemnation around the world through both social and conventional media. The economic democracy of the internet kicked in. United Airlines’ market capitalisation fell by USD$1b. The passenger will sue the airline, prolonging the negative press. And, no doubt, morale in the airline has taken a major plunge.

The impact on United Airlines: major brand damage.

Providing great service under normal circumstances is challenging enough. However, the United Airlines crew were faced with a challenging, ambiguous situation that required quick decisions to be made.

How do we equip employees to deal with these ambiguous situations?

And what have purpose, values and empowerment got to do with this?

The short answer is “a lot”.

Providing a cultural infrastructure to guide our action

Before I go on, I have to say that I personally feel for the United Airlines crew who were involved on the day. They woke up in the morning wanting to do a good job.

I believe that if a company provides the right cultural infrastructure, then this type of difficult situation with the customer would be handled differently.

Let me explain…

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, says that the purpose of his companies is to make a positive difference to people’s lives. He says…

I believe all businesses need to have this desire in their DNA in order to ultimately be successful….”

“We pride ourselves on heartfelt service…By putting too many processes and procedures in place, staff can be hindered when they need to make judgement calls, based upon their experience, their humanity and the company culture… all across the Virgin Group – we give our teams the latitude to make decisions based on common sense, not outdated rule books.”

 (To read the full text of Richard Branson’s blog post, on “What is your business built on”, go to https://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/what-your-business-built#.WPFdzPkryAU.email)

 Turning now to United Airlines

The airline has a well-worded, “Our United Customer Commitment”.

The Commitment commences with…

“Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers…

The United website proudly speaks of the airline’s Values, the Spirit of United. One of the values is Flying Friendly – being warm and welcoming.

However, it appears that, at the time of the incident, company rules overrode company Commitment, purpose and company values.

So, how could we significantly reduce the probability of a difficult situation to escalating to a bad situation, as we have witnessed in this case?

If the organisation had developed two key pillars within its cultural infrastructure, then things may have turned out differently for the passenger and for United Airlines. The pillars are:

  1. Pillar 1 – A culture based on a strong sense of purpose and values: The first pillar is for organisations to have a laser focus on reinforcing, at all levels, a strong customer-focused purpose, with a set of values to guide behaviours. This needs to be an ongoing organisational priority, operationalised by management role modelling, communications, rewards and recognition, training, measurement and more.
  2. Pillar 2 – Empowerment based on company purpose should always override rules and procedures: Rules and procedures are important to any organisation. But, if implementation of rules and procedures will mean a departure from the purpose of the organisation, then employees should be empowered to press the “purpose-driven override button”.

A question for you

How strong are the two pillars in the cultural infrastructure in your organisation? In your team?


I will end this article with words of wisdom from Richard Branson.

“When positive, heartfelt values are instilled in your team, they will be empowered, they will feel appreciated and know they are part of a bigger mission than just making money. This will come across in the way they treat your customers, who in turn will prove to be more loyal to your brand and service. And, in the end, this will reflect positively on your profits too.”

Until next time.




George Aveling is the Australian-born CEO of TMI Malaysia, a customer-experience consultancy. TMI has offices in 45 countries of the world. If you would like to contact George direct, feel free to email him at george@tmimalaysia.com.my

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