Last week, a Southwest Airlines flight from Orlando to Washington, D.C., was delayed. Passengers sat at the gate for an hour. Then two. Naturally, they grew frustrated. 

But then a gate agent stepped in and started playing games with the waiting passengers. One game? A contest for the worst driver's license picture. Other games included a paper airplane contest.

The winners received Southwest gear and $25 vouchers.

But the prizes weren't the point. 

"I was really irritated that the flight kept getting delayed because I was going for a quick weekend trip to D.C. to visit friends," Dundas said. "Once he started playing games, I was laughing and having a great time and didn't even mind that the flight was delayed."

Dundas wasn't alone: When the flight boarded after a three-hour delay, passengers applauded the gate agents.

As a Southwest spokesperson told CNN, "This video is another great example of how we encourage our employees to have fun with customers."

Without authority, responsibility is meaningless.

Clearly, the "worst driver's license photo" contest didn't come from an employee handbook. Best practices -- and micromanaged processes -- tend to wring the life out of employee behavior. 

Instead, engagement and satisfaction are largely based on autonomy and independence. I care when it's "mine." I care when I'm in charge and feel empowered to do what's right. 

Plus, freedom breeds innovation: Even heavily process-oriented positions have room for different approaches.

The gate agent knew passengers were frustrated. So instead of making a generic, "Once again, we apologize for the delay and hope to have you on your way soon" announcement, he decided to have a little fun with the situation. He couldn't control the delay, but he could control what he and the other gate agents did during the delay.

Southwest tries hard to eliminate delays, and on a broader level, to deliver outstanding customer service by eliminating the root cause of problems.

But at the same time, Southwest also gives its employees the freedom and authority to deliver experiences that make customers feel they have done business with real people, not with a faceless company.

Whenever possible, give your employees the autonomy and independence to work the way they work best.

When you do, they almost always find ways to do their jobs better than you imagined possible.

Published on: Aug 26, 2019
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