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100,000 Opportunities to Build or Dilute Your Culture – Lessons from Delta

By formulanone from Huntsville, United States - Delta N981EV Bombardier CRJ200 Takeoff ATL June 2015, CC BY-SA 2.0

Last year, I was asked to serve on a panel in Atlanta with senior executives of Cox Automotive, Rheem Manufacturing, and Delta to share insights on cultivating an effective culture. Cox Automotive, Rheem, and Delta were on the panel because of their vigilant commitment to maintaining a positive and productive culture for all of their employees. Collectively, they have over 100,000 employees, and their cultures are shaped every day by the actions and decisions of each of those 100,000 employees.

On my way to Atlanta, my Delta flight was delayed almost two hours. Fortunately, I was flying in the day before my panel, but most passengers were flying in for business meetings that day, and the delay was causing significant disruption to their schedules.  Tensions and frustrations were high. As we boarded, a man couldn’t get the overhead bin door to close and started angrily banging it over and over – and over. When a flight attendant asked if he needed help, he snapped at her. When she slowly pushed the door closed and it clicked shut, he unleashed a demeaning flurry of personal insults. She asked him to stop, other passengers told him to stop, but he continued – even profanely mocking her for not having any power to do anything about it.

I was fascinated – not because of the man’s childish behavior – but because the way Delta chose to respond was going to be shaped by – or shape – its culture. I had heard great things about the lengths Delta goes to in an effort to protect their culture; but this was a situation where their hands were tied. No matter how rude and disrespectful this man was, the reality was that Delta couldn’t afford any more delays.

I felt bad for the Flight Attendant – and, frankly, for Delta because this guy was going to get away with it, and as important as their culture is, this was just one of those really unfortunate times where they had to let it go. We’ve all been there – situations where we knew what we need to do, but we just can’t because of the impact it would have on our business. It’s a very real tension – and what makes culture so difficult. Despite the external circumstances, even as non-employees, we were frustrated that this guy was going to get away with being a complete ass.

And then …

In a surprised of everyone, the Pilot appeared with the Flight Attendant. He candidly explained that Delta doesn’t talk to each other that way and would not allow passengers to talk to them that way either. He asked the man to apologize to the Flight Attendant. He refused. The Pilot asked the man to gather his bags and leave the plane. The apologies started coming, followed by complaints that he would miss his meeting and insults about how poorly Delta treated its passengers. The Pilot reiterated that Delta would not tolerate that kind of behavior, and the man left the plane.

Wow. What an incredible example of cultivating your culture!

As a leader, cultivating the culture you want involves not only defining it and rewarding behaviors that are consistent with it, but also defending it – even when it’s inconvenient. You have to be willing to make hard choices and have hard conversations when managers, employees, or customers act in conflict with your culture. You have to be willing to defend your culture even when high performers are the ones violating it – even when business circumstances make it seem necessary to let incongruent actions slide.

Delta’s response to this passenger captures this in the most salient way. In the face of potentially bad reviews for being late, frustrated passengers, and the need to make up as much time as possible, Delta prioritized its culture.

Defending your culture is hard. At times, it feels like there are too many fires to put out. Additionally, defending your culture requires candid conversations – and in some instances even letting someone go. While uncomfortable – and may possibly create short term business challenges, they are necessary if you want to protect your culture.