“Luving” Authenticity and Southwest Airlines

I flew two Southwest flights recently, so this article hit close to home: Positioning Southwest Airlines through Employee Branding, by Sandra J. Miles and W.Glynn Mangold. The article was published in Business Horizons in 2005.

This article is about employee branding, using Southwest airlines as a case study. What struck me about this article is that it was, in a large part, about authenticity without the word ever being mentioned.

Article Summary
Southwest has an enviable reputation, with very specific missions and values. If you want to read more about them and how they are embedded in their employees in more detail, please see the article. However, two of the methods are highlighted as key by the authors:

(1) Consistency in messaging: every message (to staff, advertising, customers, etc) is vetted to ensure it embodies and is consistent with Southwest values;

(2) The psychological contract is a perceptual “deal” the employee makes with the organisation about what is acceptable and not acceptable at work and what they are going to get in exchange for what they give. Staff at Southwest are very specific about their contract, and expectations and spelled out through a strong corporate culture.

If the organisation is consistent in their culture; and they develop and behave consistently from the top down, they will attract and retain employees who behave in that way.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but anyone who has worked in a large organisation can tell you it is not an easy thing to do.

The upshot of this, of course, is that Southwest becomes perceived as an authentic organisation because they are one. Let’s take this article through some observations.

360da
Objective: Southwest is what it says it is, with every message vetted to ensure this is the case. Even broken promises with customers (like the delays I experienced at SFO recently on my flight) are explained in a forthright way. However this is not unusual for an airline.

Constructive: Most of the article is devoted to Southwest’s culture. For a company with a love heart in their logo and the word “luv” everywhere, the desire on behalf of the company to project a specific culture is strong.  They manage it top-down AND bottom-up. Southwest culture circles focus on maintaining and expanding the culture. Southwest shapes their culture deliberately, through careful selection, reinforcement, measurement and active participation. But that deliberateness may come across as natural because it becomes second nature to most of the people surrounded by it. And remember, employees are selected on their basis of whether they are a fit for the Southwest culture.

Commercial: Southwest attempts to be true to itself through its self-constructed messages and culture, which, ideally has been internalised by its staff and then is externalised through their customer service.

Existential: The key to Southwest’s success in this area is to move away from scripted behaviour, while consistently engaging with the cultural norms emphasised by the organisation. A good example illustrating this are the  Southwest employees singing their safety scripts before takeoff. The consistency of the Southwest brand is present and within that strict, deliberately constructed world, people are still free to “be themselves” and execute their own agency (when that agency aligns with Southwest mission and values).

Takeaways
This article discusses “employee branding”; but it is really about orchestrating an organisational culture so thoroughly that the culture imbues everything. From suppliers, to customers, to shareholders, employees and other stakeholders, the Southwest brand culture comes across as authentic, because it is. The challenge? To make it happen.

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