This past week United Airlines committed a customer service mistake that will cost them millions.  By forcibly removing a passenger, due to an overbooked flight, they exposed a deep culture issue.  However, this isn’t the first incident.  A few weeks ago they denied two teenage girls from boarding due to company dress code violations. In 2009, they famously broke a passengers guitar and promised to use the incident as a training opportunity.  However, it is clear that the company’s Core Values do not mean anything.  They are aspirational at best.  Their culture is broken and you should take it as an example of what not to do.

Don’t Fall Into Core Value Traps

In his Harvard Business Review article Patrick Lencioni writes, “Core values are the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions; they serve as its cultural cornerstones. Collins and Porras succinctly define core values as being inherent and sacrosanct; they can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain. Core values often reflect the values of the company’s founders—Hewlett-Packard’s celebrated “HP Way” is an example. They are the source of a company’s distinctiveness and must be maintained at all costs.”  Here are United’s Core Values taken from their website.

  • We Fly Right – On the ground and in the air, we hold ourselves to the highest standards in safety and reliability. We earn trust by doing things the right way and delivering on our commitments every day.
  • We Fly Friendly – Warm and welcoming is who we are.
  • We Fly Together – As a united United, we respect every voice, communicate openly and honestly, make decisions with facts and empathy, and celebrate our journey together.
  • We Fly Above & Beyond – With an ambition to win, a commitment to excellence, and a passion for staying a step ahead, we are unmatched in our drive to be the best.

Core Values Need To Mean Something

Lencioni also writes “If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement. You’ll be better off without one.”  Seems like United would be better off without these aspirational values all together.  Here is a great contrasting example of Core Values from Apple’s late Steve Jobs.

Therefore, in order to make your Core Values mean something they must come from the core of who you are as people.  They should not be who you wish you were or would like to become.  When establishing your values make sure to avoid the accidental, aspirational, and permission-to-play traps.  If you do, it will set you up for disaster of United proportions.

Hire Your Employees Based On Core Values

Even though there is a talent shortage in the United States, you need to hire your people based on your Core Values.  Consequently, this method of hiring will ensure your culture is perpetuated from top to bottom.  I always coach my clients to include a Core Values speech in their HR process.  It has a powerful way of repulsing those you don’t want and attracting those you do.  Remember that culture eats strategy for lunch.

Build Culture With Intent

In summary, when you have a defined set of values and you hire based on them, you will need to make sure you are rewarding, recognizing and firing based on them.   As the saying goes, 7 times to hear for the first time.  Here are the steps in building a culture with intent.

  1. Define your Core Values (3-7, less is more)
  2. Include your Core Values in your HR process
  3. Hire, fire, review, reward and recognize your people based on them
  4. Repeat yourself often, 7-times to hear it for the first time

When working with my clients, and developing The Vision/Traction Organizer™, we go through a discover exercise to ensure that we are selecting values that mean something.  Sometimes clients have the temptation to choose characteristics that they think their employees need to have.  This is a common mistake companies like United make.  They select values that are not who they actually are, just who they wish they were.  It’s very hard to perpetuate that change, especially a company the size of United. It’s my passion to help people live the life they want to live. If you are interested in EOS, The Entrepreneurial Operating System® and would like to learn more, click the button below. This free 90-minute workshop will teach you all the tools necessary to achieve a higher level of freedom in your life and business.