What Businesses Can Learn from the United Airlines Fiasco

The internet was awash in commentary regarding the forced removal of a passenger from a United Airlines flight. I have no interest in assigning blame or judgment in regards to who was right and who was wrong. But the situation did cast light on a subtle issue that often crops up while running a large organization. That issue is policy versus principle, and how they are supposed to interact.

Policy is meant to guide the decision making of individual members of an organization, and if employees lose sight of why the policy exists in the first place, things can quickly get out of control. Policies should be day-to-day extensions of the principles companies are based on.

This is what happened on that airplane. The policy that those security guards were upholding was meant to facilitate the smooth operation of an airline and make sure the proper employees were in the right place at the right time. Because things escalated so quickly, and employees lost sight of principle, that policy has caused a PR catastrophe that’s cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

That’s what happens when policy overshadows principle, when we blindly follow rules for rules’ sake, not for the outcome the rule is meant to create and protect. If employees would have considered company principle instead of policy, they could have made the best of a bad situation and nobody outside of a few annoyed passengers would have been affected. They could have made an in-game decision and pivoted, thus amending the situation and getting folks to their destination.

Instead, the company is at the center of an international controversy. On a micro-level they forgot they were a transportation company that exists to get people from point A to point B. They help keep the world connected through air travel. For a few minutes they lost sight of these principles, and showed us why they are so important in the first place.