The Trust Building Opportunity of a Crisis

Photo by Simon Maage on  Unsplash

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

Every crisis situation represents a priceless opportunity for leaders to serve and lead in a way that builds trust. When things go wrong and people expect the worst in us to come out, we can seize the moment to practice impeccable communication, demonstrate our emotional intelligence, and take actions that show people that we are willing to practice what we preach, even when the going gets tough. Let me give you a real world example of how would look, based on an experience I recently had in my travels.

A few weeks ago, I published a post about how I have come to love Southwest Airlines, not only because of their free baggage and no change fee policies, but because of the way every one of their team members that I have encountered has treated me and other customers. I am clear that the latter is the key distinguishing factor in the airline’s reputation, because even though I have flown on other airlines that offer cheaper rates, they invariably end up herding passengers like cattle and trying to “nickel and dime” them at every step of the process.

A couple of weeks after I published that post, I was on another Southwest flight, from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, when the plane encountered a minor mechanical problem in the air. Out of an abundance of caution, given recent events, we ended up being diverted to Charleston, WV. All the passengers had to change planes and I eventually got home at 1:30 am, which was 6 hours later than the scheduled arrival time.


You would think this incident would make me reconsider my enthusiasm for Southwest, but you would be wrong! Because of the way the entire situation was handled, the airline proved to me that they are not only a joy to work with when things are going well, but they are also the best at handling a crisis with a customer-centric mindset and actions to back it up. The crew masterfully handled the situation in a way that turned what could have been a plane full of angry customers into a group of delighted passengers who were joking and laughing and making new friends while waiting for the next plane to come in.

I believe there are lessons to be learned not just from the crew, but also from the airline that has created a culture that cultivates this kind of response to crisis. What I observed was impeccable communication, emotional intelligence, and caring actions, all of which combined to create a positive experience despite a less than ideal situation.

Impeccable Communication – I must admit I missed the announcement that was made just before the emergency landing. The ride had been bumpy and I assumed the muffled announcement that had been made as I was watching a movie with my noise cancelling headphones had had something to do with that. I was surprised to land about 45 minutes ahead of schedule and it was only after I texted my wife to let her know we had landed that I heard the flight attendant say, “Please remain in your seats until we find out exactly what is going on!” When we pulled up to the gate only seconds after touching down, it was clear that we weren’t in Atlanta! Then, the captain came out of the cockpit and explained to us that two of three generators had gone out and to err on the side of caution, they had decided to land at the nearest airport to get the plane looked at. He didn’t keep us in the dark. He was transparent in his communication, even though he didn‘t have all the answers. He and the rest of the crew kept us in the loop the entire time as they brought in a mechanic and eventually decided to bring in another plane from BWI.

Meanwhile, the communication from Southwest Airlines via automated text messages and timely responses to inquiries by actual humans kept us in the loop. We had total visibility of the situation, the good, the bad, and the ugly, every step of the way. Even though none of us would have chosen to spend our Friday evening in some little airport and many passengers were missing their flights to their final destinations, we were all relatively calm and in good spirits.

Emotional Intelligence – One definition of emotional intelligence that came across the other day is “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” I can tell you that the pilots and the crew expertly demonstrated this ability during the entire ordeal. They managed to stay calm, keep their sense of humor, and respond to questions and inquiries in a respectful and caring manner. They created a safe space where the passengers knew they were in good hands. While they must have had a thousand things on their minds and they were handing the communication with the airport and the airline behind the scenes, and during a time when it would have been completely understandable if they came across a little pre-occupied with the task of coordinating a solution to an unforeseen problem, we never sensed anybody panicking and being so consumed with their own issues that they weren’t concerned about us.

Caring Actions – There were several small gestures displayed that amounted to the perception that this company and this crew really cared about us, not just as customers, but as people. They were not just trying to do the minimum that they were required to according to some handbook or guidelines. The captain was making his rounds and personally speaking to people and thanking them several times, the crew was ordering pizza for all the passengers, the airline sent emails a few minutes after our unscheduled stop, acknowledging the inconvenience and letting us know we would be getting a LUV voucher to use a future flight, the crew retrieved a bag for a woman who missed the last announcement, and so on. These and many other small gestures showed the passengers that this airline not only had policies that were aimed at making sure that passengers were satisfied and kept coming back, but that they also we willing to do what it takes to ensure that the behavior of their team members was in line with those intentions.

My own experience, having been involved in a few turnaround situations, is that you can build trust so much faster in times of trouble than you ever could when everything is running smoothly. It is hard to tell who is just “talking the talk” and who is willing to actually “walk the walk” when there is no pressure. Everybody can talk a good game when things are going well, so there is not much you can say or do as a leader that will distinguish you from others are who are saying and doing the same thing. It is when a crisis hits that the difference between Transformative Leaders and ineffective bosses shows up. It in those times when impeccable communication, emotional intelligence, and caring actions matter most, and when people lease expect them, that you get to prove yourself trustworthy and a good steward of the power that has been bestowed upon you as a leader. The lesson learned and reinforced here is that when people see that we live out values even when the going gets tough, they tend to offer up their trust and commitment like never before. Therefore, we can seize every crisis as a priceless opportunity to lead, serve, and earn trust.

About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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