The Boss Who Sneaked Onto a Plane

southwestOn Sunday evening I was on the first of two flights that would take me home to Pittsburgh from a multi-day training event in Austin, Texas. As I do most of the time, I was flying Southwest Airlines.

Shortly after takeoff a man in a Southwest dress shirt stood and asked for our attention. He introduced himself as Sam, the regional head of flight attendants. Sam shared that he wanted to take a moment to recognize Brian who was currently serving our flight. From his pocket, Sam pulled out and read a letter, sent in by a passenger, describing the way Brian had helped her with her fussy infant on a recent flight. After reading the letter, Sam told us he had secretly “snuck onto the flight” to surprise Brian with this public display of appreciation, because “we get compliments about Brian all the time and are lucky to have him with us at Southwest.” At Sam’s request, the whole cabin gave Brian a rousing ovation. While Brian, blushing and trying to get smaller, shook his boss’s hand, his fellow flight attendants cheered him on with affection and respect. And moments later, when few were still watching, I saw Sam look into Brian’s eyes and say, with deep and sincere appreciation, “Thank you…for all that you do.”

When you ask employees what would motivate them at work, they don’t say “more money.” Research tells us overwhelmingly that what employees want most of all is more recognition. We want those around us – especially our bosses – to appreciate our efforts and all that we bring to the table.

Sam got on a plane to say “thank you.” (Yeah…read that sentence again.) He gave up hours to pull it off. Do you think Brian felt valued? No doubt. And while this grand gratitude gesture was significant, it’s the authenticity with which Sam expressed his appreciation for Brian that is noteworthy. Many of us say thank you often, but does the depth of our appreciation come through each and every time we say it?

But that’s not the lesson of the story. This is…

Sam went out of his way to recognize Brian for doing his job.

Brian didn’t go above and beyond. He did what all flight attendants are expected to do. The circumstances described in the letter – a fussy infant, and Brian’s response – weren’t extraordinary. In fact, they were quite ordinary, as in flight happenings go. Sam didn’t praise Brian because he did something special. He praised him because he wanted Brian to feel special. He wanted Brian to know that his work makes a difference. That’s what good bosses do. That’s where engagement comes from.

And did you notice that Brian’s teammates didn’t seethe with jealousy, gossip about him in the back of the plane, or accuse Sam of playing favorites? They stood in the middle of the plane and lovingly cheered Brian, proud to be his colleague. It never occurred to them to feel slighted because – and I’m guessing here but doing so with confidence – they’ve likely been on the receiving end of the same kind of genuine feedback Brian got from Sam. They know they matter, too.

So say thank you. Do it often and loudly. Spotlight others for doing their jobs and help them matter. Pull off a grand gratitude gesture here and there. And when you say thank you, look into the person’s eyes and mean it.

Joe Mull, M.Ed. is a keynote speaker, author, and trainer who works with healthcare organizations that want their practice managers to engage, inspire, and succeed. Check out his book: Cure for the Common Leader: What Physicians & Managers Must Do to Engage & Inspire Healthcare Teams.

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