I stopped flying United Airlines a while back. I remember the first time I felt harassed on a United flight. I asked for help lifting my backpack into the overhead. The flight attendant’s lip curled slightly as she said, “I am primarily here for your safety” with a tone that added the unspoken message, “so don’t treat me like a servant.” At the time, I assumed her anger was due to a snowballing series of unpleasant events and my assumptive request felt arrogant to her. It was not immaterial that she was black and I am white. I am active in racial reconciliation work in the Deep South so if race was part of it that makes sense to me.
But I see another pattern fueling tension between United employees and customers that recently led to man-handling a customer. And I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Like all reality, there are predictable polarities in business – particularly service businesses. One big paradox is:
If the customer is always right… are employees still our most important asset?
I’m guessing United and other airlines adopted the “primarily here for your safety” perspective as a strategy to increase the dignity employees retain if/when customers are unkind. A guardian gets more dignity than a servant so this metaphor shifted the pendulum of empathetic perspective toward employees. And that’s wonderful. We should be taking better care of employees. This has been a long term strategy for United and it explains the CEOs initial solidarity with employees.
Yet the unintended consequence of increasing empathy for employees by characterizing them as guardians first, hosts second, simply shifts the burden to manage physical safety and psychological safety. Attempts to mechanize empathy seem to shift the burden by de-humanizing yet another context where personal attention matters. We are drowning beneath a tsunami of decisions chasing numbers at the expense of personal relationships and it is turning out exactly as you might imagine.
Systems designed to ensure physical safety frequently create a lack of psychological safety. Think Nurse Ratched. Or TSA (much better now). Systems and routines designed to minimize the situational nature of empathy only prevent the situational nature of empathy. Even hospitals enter a dangerous phase when numbers become more important that people. And it’s not restricted to a focus on safety. Last week, I felt harassed by endless phone calls from my car dealer strong arming me into completing a customer satisfaction survey. These poor people seem more incentivized to score satisfaction than deliver it. Competition for good numbers can turn good people into little nazis. We need two forms of measurement: numbers are great but qualitative measures matter too.
Numbers games teach winners to shift expenses and burdens onto losers – in United’s case – customers. Emphasizing physical safety (measurable) over psychological safety (qualitative) builds autocratic systems that enforce preventative routines based on worst case scenario, root cause analysis, and the ethic of “better safe than sorry.” We can do better. The human need for empathy (and the consequences of empathy denied) will never be designed out of real life. So why not embrace the paradox, pursue safety and good numbers while remembering that the best way to get empathy is to give it.