Rules Are Rules, But Don’t Be A F*cking Idiot

When I think of the phrase “shit show,” United Airlines comes to mind, where the latest unfriendly sky fiasco removed four passengers from a United plane because the company had overbooked the flight.

Hey, it happens. Most passengers show up. Some don’t. So, United wanted to get the biggest bang for their buck. I get it.

What I don’t get was United’s response. They went the normal route and tried to incentivize passengers with financial rewards, throw an extra $800 and “lovely” airport hotel stay at people to compensate for the stress, frustration, and time lost, not to mention the ass pain of taking another flight—one on which their luggage would most likely not be.

And on this particular flight, there were no takers. Nobody bit. Nobody bought into the bullshit United was slingin’ because, well, they’re not dumb. People value their time.

Moreover, they’re not motivated by a meager $800 because they place a premium on themselves. Who doesn’t? (Learn why here)

So, what did United do? They broke out the big guns. They randomly chose four passengers to depart the plane and had them removed by security.

Now, under federal regulations, if you’re given a federal mandate such as this (to depart the plane) you must comply. It’s a federal offense not to.

At the same time, there’s a right way and wrong way to go about it and there’s an art and science to knowing when to break the rules. United won the short term battle, yes, but they have a much larger, uphill climb to fight now with their brand.

Your brand is everything—everything—and what people associate with United customer service now is this:

or before they fly United is this:

Now, it’s not the humor of these pics and videos (although they are pretty funny), it’s the top-down, push-not-pull approach United has taken with regard to incentives.

If you know anything about incentivizing or Daniel Pink’s research on motivation 2.0, then you know that financial incentives don’t work.

They just don’t.

The carrot and the stick approach has been dead for a while. In today’s age, it’s purpose, mastery, and autonomy that motivate, not dollars or cents.

Ok, now back to branding.

The message that United sent was this: If you don’t listen, you’re gonna pay the man. Granted, rules are rules. But, at the same time, if you’re in the customer service industry then what does a physical beatdown of a passenger convey about how much you really care about the customer? You know what it says? It says this:

And that’s the uphill climb United now has, repurposing their brand to one of trust, loyalty and respect because, after all, that’s the only reason anybody does business with anybody.


Instead of me just rattling off problems or why United is screwed PR-wise, I’ll also offer some solutions. Here are three that come to mind:

If it’s easy, it’s probably wrong.

There’s a difference between simple and easy. Simple is good, but simple isn’t easy [LINK]. The easy choice here is to offer money to passengers because, well, it’s easy. Actually it’s both simple in concept and it’s easy. But nothing good comes from easy. Ever. Offering something other than financial incentives is simple as well, but it isn’t easy. Why? Because it would require negotiation between corporate bidders. It would entail a contract between United and the provider (Blueboard and Wishlist Rewards are but a few) and more paperwork and processing is just a headache.

Check out this infographic from Blueboard:

But, United would be a thought leader in its industry by thinking outside the box and adhering to what mounds of research reveal about Motivation 2.0: that money works for very few. Put it this way, if your’e bumped off a flight and the airlines offers you either $500 or a tandem skydive jump, a James Bond-like dinner experience or some other memory, what would you take? (It doesn’t have to necessarily be skydiving, it could be any sort of memorable experience). And, more importantly, what kind of loyalty would you now have toward that airline?

Outline decision making boundaries. 

Airline employees can authorize financial incentives up to a certain dollar amount, but, if nobody bites, what should they do? In this case, United called for security because the employees either A) didn’t think hard enough outside the box to come up with an alternative incentive or B) followed protocol to the tee because there were no other options established. If it’s the latter, then that’s a leadership issue because apparently there were no secondary or tertiary plans for turning a non-compliant into a compliant passenger if the primary plan (I.e. Incentives) were to fold, and it did. If I learned one thing as a SEAL (besides to duck!) it was to always, always have a backup plan. Always.

Decision boundaries refer to the space or lanes in which you’re authorized to make decisions by way of rank, tenure, subject matter expertise, experience or influence. What typically happens in large organizations is these boundaries become muddled as the company grows and as new employees enter. Or, they’re simply never established in the first place.

Setup contingency plans.

Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first) but if  money didn’t motivate this passenger then there must be something else. Figure it out. Again, this goes back to establishing—and ideally, expanding—employee decision making boundaries so they’re free to solve the problem based on how they see fit rather than on what corporate dictates. If the protocol is so narrowly defined then options and freedom of movement don’t exist, which means the organization itself is limited.

Put it this way, the economy isn’t exactly in bad shape which means there’s a good chance that people feel financially secure. Taking this into account, there are two options:

1) that financial incentive needs to be pretty fucking hefty


2)  there needs to be something else entirely.

Plenty of other incentive options come to mind here and I’m not even that creative. Aside from creative thinking exercises for United employees, there needs to be clarity on what decisions are made, by whom and who has responsibility for them. It’s ultimately the leader’s role to establish these boundaries so employees know where they stand (and where they don’t).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for violence. I wouldn’t have spent 13 years at a Tier One unit as a Navy SEAL if I thought doing nothing was the best option. However, when it comes to customers and clients, they are the only mission that matters, and right now United’s brand is one where customers come last—right behind toilet water management.