Two Ways United Airlines Could Have Avoided Public Backlash

On April 9th, 2017, David Dao was physically dragged off a United Airlines flight departing from O’Hare International Airport. You’ve no doubt heard about this, but in case you’ve got some catching up to do, you can read about it here:

How did what should have been a relatively calm, albeit unpleasant, incident turn so bad so quickly? It’s been heralded as a PR nightmare and for good reason.

One video (of many) of David Dao being forcibly removed from the plane by security, bloody-nosed, and possibly concussed, was viewed 6.8 million times in less than a day.

While a culmination of things contributed to the ghastly turn of events, the most powerful factor was fear, leading quickly into a panic.

The crew panicked and called the manager, the manager panicked and called security, and security panicked and acted with aggression.

Fear abounds in stressful situations. It puts people on the defense and on edge. Fear is often misinterpreted as pure aggression, anger, or obstinacy.

The Importance of Being Emotionally Connected

There were two main indicators that the CEO and Board of Directors did not slow down and take the time to process their emotions. They did not check in with themselves or each other. They didn’t reflect or make sure that they approached the situation while being emotionally balanced.

1.) In his first statement after the incident, United Airline’s CEO Oscar Munoz seemed to have justified Dao’s removal. He also sent an email to United staff referring to Dao as “belligerent” and “disruptive,” commending the crew for following procedures.

Both Munoz and United’s initial statements were sharply criticized and the subject of incredible public backlash. Two days later, Munoz issued another statement, apologizing and pledging that this kind of incident would never happen again on United aircraft. He said, “No one should ever be mistreated this way”.

It makes sense that Munoz initially supported his staff, praising their reactionary behavior. Empathizing was a step in the right direction, but it was very one-sided, overlooking other stakeholders.

Imagine how Dao felt at that moment. It’s likely that he was very scared, and that fear drove him to shut down, hold his ground, and act defensively. He was likely humiliated and angry because he felt attacked personally.

Now imagine how the other customers must have felt. They were likely very confused, scared, and morally conflicted.

In his initial statement, Munoz validated his crew but didn’t validate anyone else. Dao and the other passengers’ feelings and perspectives were ignored. And as the situation escalated into something so extreme, the staff and crew (while acting according to supposed protocol) probably felt humiliated as well.

It makes sense that Munoz would not have the capacity to think about all the shareholders because when we experience panic, not only does our prefrontal cortex slow down, our social skills diminish. For example, it becomes very difficult for us to understand someone else’s pain and empathize with them.  People feel backed into a corner, to which a common and understandable response is self-preservation, fear, and panic.

However, when we have the support system to helps us process our emotions and regain our emotional balance, we can process information much more clearly, solve problems, think reasonably, and be much more understanding about what is happening for all stakeholders.

If Munoz had processed his emotions and strived for emotional balance, he could’ve avoided the PR nightmare he found himself in. He panicked and blamed Dao by only validating one side of the story.

2.) The fact that Munoz did not confer with his board and pull them close to act as a team in this crisis demonstrates that there was probably already disconnection between them. Had Munoz engaged the board, or had the board engaged Munoz, they would have had the opportunity to help each other process their emotions.

United’s board decided to retract their previous agreement to promote Munoz to Chairman of the Board. Officially, it hasn’t been stated that this was a direct result of his handling of the incident – but it is a logical conclusion to come to.

Denying Munoz a promotion based on this incident is a reaction almost certain to cause a relationship injury. Their reaction says to Munoz, “You are not valuable enough, capable enough, or competent enough to be the Chairman.” Again, this decision comes as a result when people don’t know how to process their emotions. It is understandable that the board was embarrassed by how Munoz responded and now, their decision most likely caused not only embarrassment for Munoz but public humiliation as well. Fear is the most powerful driving force, and the most damaging. Because of this relationship injury, Munoz most likely physiologically responded to his board as dangerous, an enemy, or at least an untrustworthy entity. If the board had tried to understand what happened to Munoz – and all stakeholders – emotionally, they could have come out of this incident united.

In stressful times, we need each other to get our emotional balance. When we know how to create that safe and secure connection, it becomes much easier to turn to each other for help. Munoz most likely felt he couldn’t do this with his board. Nor did his board feel securely connected enough to help each other in gaining that emotional balance.  Their relationship injuries resulted in them not being there for each other in a time of great stress, not knowing how to share their vulnerabilities and as a result, it left them feeling betrayed and isolated from each other.

Without reflecting and sharing each team member’s emotions, everyone is left to guess how they are feeling Typically, guessing goes in a negative direction rather than a positive one – we usually assume the worst when our vulnerabilities are triggered.

This is what happens when people don’t know how to deal with their emotions: they start using strategies that they think are solutions, but the trouble is that those ineffective solutions end up confirming all of their worst fears that the other person is dangerous, that the other person is not there for them, that they are distant, indifferent and then the relationship goes up in flames.  These are powerful emotional realities that take us off balance.

United Airlines Moving Forward

It is likely that we will see more distance between the board and the CEO, that it would be difficult for them to share information openly and honestly, seek input and suggestions, and recognize each other during board meetings.  It would also be unsurprising if Munoz resigns from the company if this relationship injury is not properly healed and the board is not reconnected.

It would be wise for the United to learn about creating an emotional connection and know how to address and validate the emotional disconnections and how to reconnect the board and the CEO to stay united and strong. United has announced that they will review and change several of their procedures and policies – hopefully taking the process of keeping emotional balance into account.

To learn more about how you and your board and the CEO can master the process of creating emotional balance, contact us.

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