Why your silence is creating chaos

“Ladies and gentlemen, there’s a slight delay. It will be about 15 minutes before we board. Maintenance is fixing an issue with the cockpit radio and as soon as it’s fixed we will be ready to board.”

Who would have known that this PA announcement was the beginning of a leadership lesson?

Fifteen minutes later we did, in fact, board the plane. Unfortunately, it was premature. The crew quickly discovered that the radio was still broken, and, for the next three hours we sat on the plane as they attempted to fix it.

Why your silence is creating chaos - David DeWolf

About every 15 minutes, once again, the pleasant voice of an understanding flight attendant expressed her sincere apologies and gave us an update on the status. She clearly articulated that she was as frustrated by the situation as we were and ensured us that she would keep us up to date.

Finally, the announcement came: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to let you know that maintenance has finally fixed the radio. We will be on our way as soon as the pilot goes through his pre-flight checklist to ensure your safety.”

And then, 15 minutes later, the shoe dropped.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have some disappointing news. For your safety, the FAA limits the number of consecutive hours that our flight crew can work. Unfortunately, due to our maintenance issues and the length of this flight (I was headed to India) we have been informed that our pilot and co-pilot will be over their allowed time limits and we will need to cancel tonight’s flight.”

The contrast between the three hours on the plane, and the hour-and-a-half after we got off was stark. For three hours the entire plane remained so patient and calm that the flight attendant got on the PA and thanked us for being so patient and understanding as we get off the plane. She was genuinely blown away by the grace with which everyone handled themselves.

Once in the airport, however, the passengers fell apart. Frustration rose. Complaining and name calling began. I witnessed as a stream of folks continually harassed any agent they could find. One woman in front of me even accused the airline of “apartheid and racism.” Another shouted at a security guard, wagging his finger in his face.

The casual observer may have guessed that the morning hour (it was 1:00 AM when we finally got off the plane) had something to do with the attitude. Others may have assumed that it was the cancelled flight or the long lines that drove the crowd’s behavior.

Hogwash. The only difference between our time on the plane and the time in the terminal was the deafening silence.

As we got off the plane, an agent instructed us to “Go to gate 140.” As passengers inquired further about the process, they were told sternly to just go get in line.

Nobody set an expectation. Nobody shared what was going on.

We were told nothing more than where to go. We had no idea why we were going there, what to expect when we arrived, or what accommodations we might receive for the night. From 1:00 AM to 2:30 AM we stood in line, wondering why we were standing there.

Without clarity and understanding, people fill in their own story. They assume the worst.

The difference between the three hours on the flight and the hour-and-a-half afterwards was leadership. If one United employee had followed the example of the flight attendant on #UA82, everything would have been much different. Providing clear direction, proactively sharing information, and, when possible, expressing understanding are all stages of crisis management.

A single United Airlines employee could have saved United hundreds of miserable customers and potentially thousands of dollars worth of demands. All it would have taken is someone to speak up, give greater direction, and provide proactive communication.

Is your silence causing chaos? If so, step up and lead. Give clarity and direction. Let others know what’s going on.


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  • Mark Kalpakgian

    Fun story with good lessons. My experience is that it starts with leadership valuing transparency and customer service. When leaders exemplify these qualities, the employees often do too!