Southwest Airlines Reveals 5 Culture Lessons

Despite the tragic incident on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 on April 17, 2018, the culture of the Best-Loved Airline ensured that the accident did not tarnish its reputation. The 1380 flight crew, in an interview on CBS News, attributed their success in safely landing the plane to their shared values.

Although the crew didn’t mention a specific core value, Southwest’s Servants Heart was evident throughout all the actions taken after the accident, from Captain Tammie Jo Shults walking the aisle and speaking to every passenger once the plane was safely landed to the heartfelt message from CEO Gary Kelly.

In an era of general consumer contempt for the airline business, it is heartening to see that one airline, Southwest Airlines, is walking its talk and living its cultural values. The overall attitude of the company can be best summarized by the airline’s co-founder and Chairman Emeritus Herb Kelleher, who said: “The business of business is people.” Even though the company honors and values all people involved in its business – employees, customers, suppliers/vendors, and shareholders – the company puts its employees first.

Southwest Airlines recognizes that treating its employees well creates happy customers, which results in financial success. The outcomes of this formula are shown in the company’s outstanding business statistics, which include:

  • 4% voluntary turnover
  • 44 consecutive years of profitability
  • #1 lowest number of customer complaints
  • 85% employees say they’re proud to work for Southwest
  • No layoffs, no furloughs ever

What other US airline can boast these same results? It’s no wonder the industry is talking about how Southwest Airlines treats its employees.

I was fortunate to have been invited to attend Southwest Airlines Culture Connection in December 2017 in Dallas, Texas. It was a half-day event that showcased the company’s methods of strengthening, reinforcing, and maintaining its strongly positive culture. I applaud Southwest Airlines for offering this twice-yearly “peek under the covers” of their workplace culture at no cost to the attendees. In contrast, Zappos and Disney charge fees to attend similar events they host.

I want to share a Southwest Airlines culture case study. Here are five lessons learned from Southwest’s Culture Connection day:

1. Evolve your culture.

Southwest Airlines has been in existence for over 50 years, and it started without explicitly articulated values but a shared sense of what the Southwest culture was.

About ten years ago, the leaders decided to formalize their workplace culture by identifying six values they wished to honor. They have created a department of Culture Services, whose mission is to retain focus on company values, the employees, and “low cost,” which is one of the company’s values. One way they remind employees of the culture is through “Culture Blitzes,” in which a Culture Services team visits an airport and touches every Southwest employee there with food and fun.

The team even cleans the planes for the flight operations employees.

2. Equip “leaders,” regardless of what position they have.

Leaders are recognized at all levels of the company hierarchy, not just at the top of the hierarchy. At the Culture Connection event, we saw a video of a baggage handler who plays the ukulele for passengers when he has a moment to spare. As he said, “No one can frown when you’re listening to a ukulele.” His leadership is celebrated in the video.

Leaders and high potential associates attend extensive leadership training, up to three weeks at a time, and are exposed to the company’s managerial best practices and what they call the “way we do things around here.” Leaders are encouraged to know about their employees’ needs outside of the workplace and are given authority to spend money to care for associates in ways such as sending flowers after a death along with sending Southwest-branded baby items to an employees’ newborns.

3. Empower and appreciate employees.


When the company needed new uniforms for their flight attendants, they recruited a task force of flight attendants to help design the uniforms. When customers use social media or other means of communication to compliment an employee, Southwest’s team of responders, in turn, forwards the compliment to the employee directly and their boss. In fact, Southwest receives over 7,000 of these kinds of compliments a month!

Another way the company encourages employee acknowledgment is through peer to peer recognition. With this, the company created a system which encourages employees to give “points” to colleagues. In turn, with these “points”, employees can purchase from a catalog of items that the company provides.

4. Model the way

Executives and managers are fully expected to lead the way with their behavior in the workplace. To reinforce this idea, executives are video-recorded telling personal stories that illustrate the values and spirit of Southwest Airlines. In turn, managers coach associates who fail to live out the values and expected behaviors of the organization, while many newer hires simply self-select out of the system when they recognize that their behaviors don’t conform to the prevailing Southwest culture.

5. Design the physical space to enforce culture.

At Southwest Airlines’ headquarters in Dallas, Texas, the office has been recently redesigned around “culture centers” on each of the floors. Each center highlights one of the company’s values and provides break services (coffee and kitchen facilities), meeting rooms, and quite a bit of color, photos, and flair to demonstrate that particular value. Different departments, such as accounting and marketing, are clustered around the centers, encouraging communication and chance encounters between employees across departments.

When it comes to Southwest Airlines’ culture, facts seem to support the stories. Theirs is a role model for other companies. The airline’s success demonstrates the need for a strong and vibrant company culture that puts its employees first.

Let’s all take a lesson from them. When you learn from the best, you become the best!

About the Author

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Kristin Robertson

At Brio Leadership, our passion is to make sure your employees love to come to work on Mondays! We offer company culture audits, executive coaching & training, and meeting facilitation to help you grow a vibrant company culture. Kristin Robertson, CEO of Brio Leadership, is the Happy Mondays Coach. She is a premier company culture consultant, having worked with companies such as Hewlett-Packard, 7-Eleven, Southwest Airlines and Schneider Electric to develop their leaders and grow vibrant organizational cultures. In addition, she is an executive coach who helps leaders sharpen their skills and inspire a shared vision and an interactive meeting facilitator.