What Every Leader Needs to Learn from the United Overbooking Scandal

By now almost everyone has seen the United Airlines Incident.

Dr. David Dao being dragged off United flight

United Airlines had a passenger forcibly removed because they needed the space to transport four off-duty crew members to a flight they needed to work on.

It was horrific to see on the cell-phone video taken by one of the other passengers. And if the initial incident wasn’t enough, the subsequent tepid apology from CEO Oscar Munoz was underwhelming. Basically saying that he was sorry for having to “re-accommodate” the passengers.

But it gets better.

In an internal letter to employees, Munoz affirmed that this wasn’t simply a case of a flight crew gone rogue. It was sanctioned from the top. In fact, here is what he said to his employees:

“I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

Dr. David Dao reboards United flight with bloody face

The act of forcibly removing a paying passenger from a plane is so obviously heinous to anyone outside of United’s culture bubble that when we look from the outside in, it baffles the mind that this could ever be considered an option by the crew, much less be sanctioned by the leadership.

But there we have it. The evidence lies in lurid cellphone videos of the incident and Oscar Munoz’s unbelievably poor response.

To be fair, it was actually the airport police that executed the brutal removal. And that’s a whole other issue that I’ll get to in a minute.

How is it that average citizens (the United crew, the airport police and United’s leadership) can behave in such a disrespectful manner in their jobs and yet be perfectly normal, kind, loving people away from work?

The answer lies in culture, safety in numbers and deference to authority.

Each organization has its own unique culture despite the veneer of similarity expressed in corporatespeak buzzwords, reporting structures, and innocuous say-nothing mission statements.

In most organizations, despite what glowing prose appears on the mission, vision and conduct statements, new employees quickly learn the unwritten code of “how things are really done around here”. And it’s usually not pretty. And in United’s case, the chasm between the chirpy “Fly the Friendly Skies” slogan and reality is especially wide. 

By all accounts, when Munoz took over United in 2015, it was already pretty bad. He was thrust onto an unhappy workforce as the new CEO in a position just vacated by Jeff Smisek, who resigned in connection with a federal investigation into corporate graft.

He got busy putting his stamp on United using what he’d learned in management at Pepsico, CocaCola and railroad company CSX, all companies that whose employees do not work directly with paying consumers. He started by setting out to make friends with United’s workforce and had some success with it. But it seems he forgot that the ultimate arbiter is the consumer. This may in part explain why he closed ranks and got defensive with his tepid apology and “I emphatically stand behind you” internal memo. Unfortunately, this just added fuel to the public outrage.

Where United failed was in having a disempowered corporate culture.

Culture Trumps Training and Procedures. Every Time.

Strong training, checklists, and procedures are necessary for the cockpit, but in roles that require dealing with the infinitely different needs of customers, they are woefully inadequate. You simply cannot create enough procedures for every variation of every situation that could arise.

And this is what stymied the United crew.

Their procedure manual likely stated that in this situation they could not go beyond the $800 offer to the $1350 legislated maximum to get passengers to give up their seats. It probably also stated that if a passenger refuses to get off, they should not take matters into their own hands, but get airport security involved. The problem with doing this is that they immediately lost control of the situation and handed control over to the airport police and in their minds washed their hands of the situation.

But the public didn’t see it that way.

Airport security behaved horribly but has gotten off relatively unscathed while the firestorm has landed right on United’s lap.

Organizations normally default to policies and procedures to regulate employee behavior as it seems to be the simplest, most direct approach. Especially in an unhealthy organization. But an unhealthy organizational culture is the last place where you should impose policies and procedures to solve the problems. It is very much a band-aid solution to a systemic problem. In fact, the thickness of the policies and procedures manual is probably directly related to the level of distrust the management has in their employees.

Some sort of misbehavior will always squeeze out through the cracks. And some disgruntled employees may even choose to follow the letter of the procedures manual out of spite to actually cause problems in a situation where the procedures are inadequate.

The United culture did not allow the staff the latitude to use their own best judgment to defuse the situation.

Southwest Airlines is a strong counterpoint. They actually have a higher rate of delays and passenger bumping, but a lower rate of customer complaints than United. The difference lies in the corporate culture. Southwest has a strong ethos of customer service that is ingrained in the culture from top to bottom. Employees right to the edge of the front lines are empowered and encultured to do what is right for the customer. And management stands behind them. 

Southwest employees do not need stacks of policies and procedures because they can be counted on to do what’s right according to the Southwest way. They’re hired for that quality, and are encouraged to exercise it for the airline.

Culture can Easily Become Toxic

I have consulted with many organizations and I’ve learned that there are extreme variations between cultures. I may be working with a culture of yogic karma-creating world improvers one day and walk into a different company the next day full of sociopathic cannibals who’ve just eaten their last customer and are now about to turn on each other…until their eyes rest on me…

Cultures can easily become inward-looking and start operating by their own set of morals, beliefs and “truths” that can diverge wildly from what is acceptable in normal society. If people in your organization are bribing foreign dictators, then you’ll think smaller immoral acts are also OK. This becomes the culture. If your boss says it’s OK to screw over a customer, then who are you to argue? This becomes the culture. Even though you know that it is bad, a kind of mob mentality takes over and while you’re at work you are allowed to operate by a different set of standards. This becomes the culture.

Which Brings us to the Airport Police… What’s Up with That??

Still flying under the radar are the Airport Police; the actual perpetrators of this action. The fact that they thought it was OK to brutalize the passenger is indicative of the toxicity that is permeating many of today’s security and law-enforcement organizations. People are seen as an impediment to law and order instead of citizens to serve. Policies, procedures, rules and regulations are seen as a substitute for common sense and human decency. You can always fall back on “I was just following orders and procedures” to get out of a sticky situation.

While most law enforcement officers are professional and caring, the combination of a toxic subculture and over-reliance on policies and procedures has resulted in a number of well-reported transgressions. A siege mentality has soaked into many law enforcement agencies. You can even see it in their recruitment ads which often feature high-adrenaline paramilitary activities. Even small-town sheriffs in peaceful communities are delighting in receiving army-surplus siege vehicles for who knows what purpose.

Here’s an example of an extreme recruitment video for Portsmouth, a medium-sized relatively peaceful US city:

The Lesson: Culture can Make or Destroy an Organization.

A healthy, empowered organizational culture can mitigate the risk of debacles such as United, Enron, Wells Fargo, Ferguson (need I go on?). It is also directly connected to positive results. Given the choice, people will deal with a friendly, empowered, human, caring employee rather than a rigid, procedure-bound drone. As a leader, this is a lesson to take to heart. Although it may seem daunting, creating a healthy, empowered corporate culture is the single most powerful thing you can do to align your employees and create outstanding results. You’ll go from herding cats to leading an aligned, purposeful team. And your customers, employees and shareholders will love you for it!

On the other hand, if you let the culture go off the rails by simply doing nothing or actually unwittingly helping it get there, you’ve got a problem. Just like a derailed train, getting it back on track is a significant task, and you’ll need to clean up whatever spilled out into the environment. That is what United is facing right now. 


After a nearly $1-billion stock devaluation and a 3 day beating in the arena of public opinion, Munoz finally came out with a new apology that resembles something that a real human would say.

Munoz’s new statement follows that classic PR playbook, one that has been studied closely enough that there is a science of effective apologies that’s well known in the crisis communications world. He not only says “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard” but says “we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”

But the public is still not buying it. Too little. Too late. Too polished. 

View on Twitter to see the outrage continue.

View image on Twitter

It will be interesting to see how this plays out…



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My name is Trent Schumann and I’m the founder and senior consultant at Experienca. I hope I have the pleasure of working with you soon.





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