In one of the largest PR nightmares in recent memory, a video of a man being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight has generated controversy for the company. Despite the apology that CEO Oscar Munoz eventually released to the public public perception quickly soured and within a few days the company had lost over a billion dollars in market value. While United’s fortune certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that in the weeks following the incident a scorpion was found on a plane and an engaged couple on the way to their wedding were removed from a flight, arguably the most harmful thing for United’s image was the way Munoz handled the situation in the immediate aftermath. Rather than give an immediate apology, he made vague statements about “standing by his employees” and even referred to the individual dragged off the flight as being belligerent and disruptive before he gave a legitimate apology.
What’s truly baffling about the way that Munoz handled the situation is that there was a built-in out for him to distance United from the incident – the passenger was taken off the flight not by any employees of United Airlines, but by airport security simply following protocol when it comes to removing passengers from flights. However, rather than putting distance between the company and the airport security, Munoz instead opted to defend the action.
There are two insights that can be gleaned from observing Munoz’s actions – namely, the absence of rational thought in the midst of crisis and the very real and harmful effects of psychologically defensive practices in the workplace. In The Myth of Rationality in Situations of Crisis by Dr. Einar Kringlen, stress is theorized to increase rationality in small doses but in large doses stalls the rational thought process in favor of fear and anxiety which increases the likelihood of making a rash decision with disastrous consequences. Kringlen references the Bay of Pigs disaster as a situation in which anxieties caused President John F. Kennedy’s top advisors to ultimately make a poor decision. Certainly a parallel can be drawn between their actions and Munoz forcefully aligning himself, seemingly without thought, with the United employees. It’s possible that Munoz under duress thought the most appropriate action to take in the midst of the bad press was to stand in defense of his employees.
Perhaps a more apt analysis of Munoz’s actions would be that in shifting the blame from the airport security to the passenger for being belligerent represents the psychologically defensive practices of denial and projection. Inundated with the stresses and anxieties that stemmed from the circulating video, Munoz sought to distance himself and his company from the scandal and shift the negativity from the company to the person who was ejected. This requires an intense level of internal justification for why the events transpired the way they did on that flight. While it’s easy from a spectator’s perspective to deride Munoz for his initial actions, everybody is prone to acting in irrational and potentially harmful ways when placed under extreme stress. The best thing to do then, rather than make Munoz a pariah for his actions, is to learn from them and avoid making the same mistakes ourselves.