Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Which is harder on the soul?

Running a huge company with 88,000 employees? Or flying Economy Class on a huge airline?

I only ask because of some interesting thoughts expressed last week by United Airlines president Scott Kirby.

Captured on a recording posted by Live and Let's Fly, Kirby offered his answer to an awkward question posed by employees:

A lot of time I will hear from employees that will say, 'Why does United always get beat up in the press and Southwest gets a free pass? It's not fair.'

Fairness is a subjective measure. 

It's surely true, though, that Southwest has a better reputation for, well, people skills than does United.

Clearly United is coming from behind in this area, after the now infamous case of Dr. David Dao, dragged off a United flight with a bloody face and a huge settlement pending.

Still, Kirby's explanation was quite moving. He didn't deny that United's image is not as favorable as Southwest's.

He did, though, distinguish between those who fly a lot and those who don't. He said: 

To a frequent flyer who knows all the rules, who understands how to get through TSA, who knows our rules about changing flights and when they can upgrade and when they can't, that feels professional, because it's black and white. I know all the rules.

Ah, so frequent flyers are perfectly happy and therefore, presumably much easier to please? I confess I hear from quite a few frequent flyers who don't quite feel this way.

Still, Kirby went on to contrast this with those who are only occasional flyers: 

To somebody who doesn't fly often, the rules don't make sense. They're already tense, they're stressed, trying to get through security, trying to get to the airport on time, figure out where to park their cars, you know, all that stuff. And then they get here and what doesn't make sense to them feels like a set of black and white rules, that we're this big company that just doesn't care.

Ah, so only these less experienced sorts believe that United is a cold, heartless, ruthless corporation?

Presumably, then, United employees should focus on these people in order to improve its image.

Kirby went on, however, to suggest his own employees aren't trying hard enough to be nice to everyone: 

A lot of this is about empowering you to take care of customers and do the right thing for customers, but getting all of us to start to recognize that we've got to change how people feel and so that they feel like we care. And that really is our mission, and if I have one request from all of you it's to do that. To start to think about how people perceive us, how our customers perceive us. Actually, it's not even just our customers, it's the community at large. How others perceive United Airlines.

Is it possible that United employees don't already think about how people perceive the airline?

In my regular conversations with United's staff, I find varying attitudes but, on balance, the overarching feeling remains grumbly.

Their feelings tend toward the fact that they're being asked to do too many contradictory things.

Sample: make sure the plane leaves on time or else, but still be incredibly nice to passengers and be even more incredibly nice to First Class passengers. Oh, and do it while you fly with one less Flight Attendant on board than you used to.

Moreover, it's extraordinary that Kirby seems to put so much responsibility on the employees when, after the Dao incident, they were all given so-called Core 4 training one that emphasized being caring as the second-highest priority after safety.

Does this mean it hasn't happened?

My own experience is that it absolutely varies from one flight to another.

Recently, I've had very enjoyable service from United and then less enjoyable service, too. And I'm a relatively frequent flyer.

What can a leader do, though, to motivate their employees beyond telling them to try harder?

A United Flight Attendant recently sent me a picture of a gift the airline had given them.

It was a bag of candy with the slightly gaudily-colored words: "Thank You For Being a Great Team Member!"

The Flight Attendant's view was a touch caustic: 

Taking into account the cost of the transportation of the candy, the label, the printing, the bag, the bagging of the candy, the delivery of the candy and the personnel involved, I'd rather have had the money.

Yes, leading a large company is very hard. There will always be grumpy employees.

At some point, though, the leader should take responsibility first for shortcomings and create the conditions for employees to operate successfully. 

Kirby didn't make that easy when he sponsored a new bonus scheme that took away most employees' bonuses and turned the scheme into a game show. It finally died, but resentment toward him didn't.

There's another aspect to Kirby's answer, though, that's worth mentioning.

Southwest specifically set out to have a brand image that was people-friendly, a touch maverick and enable all of its employees to deliver on that.

For too long, United was content to just get bigger.

The results of those two strategies can be seen in how customers of each airline talk about them.