Excerpted from Bloomberg:
"The daughter of Korean Air Lines Co. Chairman Cho Yang Ho ordered a plane back to the gate so she could remove a crew member who gave an incorrect answer to a question on how to serve macadamia nuts, the airline said.
Heather Cho, 40, a vice president of the airline, ordered the head of the service crew on Flight 86 from New York to Seoul to deplane after an attendant earlier had served Cho macadamia nuts without asking, the carrier said. Cho then summoned the purser to ask a question about the airline’s policy on serving nuts. Cho ordered the man to leave the plane when he couldn’t answer. Under the carrier’s rules, passengers must be asked first before serving."
Sadly, this violates one of the tenets of leadership and management. As Vince Lombardi said: “Praise in public. Correct in private.” The purser may have been negligent in not knowing policy and the executive may have had the company’s best interests in mind, but this was not the way to correct the problem.
1. "Focus on the problem, not the people or person". The actions did nothing to correct the problem. The root problems were that nuts were given without asking and also served in a bag instead of a bowl. Yes, we all tend to get frustrated with people when they do not come through and meet our expectations. Yet, how did literally throwing an employee off the “bus” ("Airbus" in this case) solve the problem? Did the VP know whether there is a generic training issue that needs to be addressed? Is the solution to toss people off a plane,train, or building whenever there is a transgression?
2. "Beatings will continue until morale improves" does not work. The actions instead humiliated the purser and drove fear into the rest of the crew. You want your people to go the extra mile, to be motivated, not demotivated.
3. "Face" is a real concern for many Asians. The purser lost "face". Some people jump off buildings because of "face". Many Asian organizations have a hierarchy that do not treat employees as equals. That doesn't mean that it's right. People all have the same feelings.
4. The executive's actions led to unintended negative repercussions, e.g. the plane was delayed and the news accounts were entirely negative. The paying passengers who witnessed the event probably had their flight experience ruined.
5. It reflects poorly on the executive and the organization. I remember an innkeeper in the UK dressing down a young employee for forgetting to arrange a taxi for a guest. The boss angrily chastised him, repeatedly asking him if he was a twit, while the poor lad could only stand there and takes the abuse. A few of us watched in absolute horror and pitied the employee. I will never forget that. While I understood the predicament for the inn keeper, I never regarded his friendliness and hospitality as genuine since that incident (he was a two-faced bully).
6. “If you’re not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” A simple conversation with the offending crew member and purser and words such as: “You do know that nuts should be served in a bowl?” would have been a step toward resolving the problem, with a guarantee that it would never occur again for this particular flight crew.
7. It violates “Practice What You Preach”. You can’t expect your employees to have a smile on their face and be courteous to guests if you are discourteous and intimidating to them. Be an example, not “Do as I say, not as I do”.
Nothing good really came out of this event except perhaps another teachable moment. The executive publicly apologized and resigned her post. Korean Airlines got quite a bit of PR but probably not in the form that they wanted. Employees were humiliated and who knows what will happen to them.
So always gather your emotions, your facts, focus on the solution and future performance, and have your conversation in private. If the problem serious, e.g. starting a fire, then you put it out immediately. It’s okay to mention that an action is incorrect but it is not good to criticize anyone in public. (I always ask my wife to do this…it works better on me.) Otherwise, you undermine your relationship with the employee, the team, and lose the respect of others.
Note: There is an opposing view of this published in HBR.