Southwest Airlines
Employee Motivation

The Southwest Airlines employee motivation phenomenon is no accident – this company is a well-oiled, high performance organization.

Wikipedia mentions these three facts:

  • Southwest Airlines (SWA) is one of the world's most profitable airlines, posting a profit for the 36th consecutive year in January 2009.
  • SWA is the largest airline in the United States by number of passengers carried domestically per year (as of December 31, 2007)
  • SWA has carried more customers than any other U.S. airline since August 2006 for combined domestic and international passengers according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

    Southwest Airlines employee motivation is a magnificent-living example of what most companies are striving for.

    The business press has continuously celebrated SWA outstanding performance. Fortune magazine has called it the most successful airline in history, and it ranks it in the top spots of its 100 Best Companies to work for.

    Despite the fact that SWA is one of the most highly unionized airlines in the US airline industry, it has consistently enjoyed lower turnover rates than other US airlines, it has high levels of employee motivation and satisfaction, and it has the lowest absenteeism and tardiness rates of any business in the area.

    In no particular order, here we mention key elements that play a critical role in the Southwest Airlines employee motivation visible fact.

    7 Key Elements in
    Southwest Airlines employee motivation


    Values are people’s deep “sacred” convictions about how they must behave themselves – values are behavior guidelines.

    The SWA set of values are not wishful thinking – on the contrary, this company’s values determine the behavior of all employees at all levels in the organization – not only front line workers must behave according to these values, but especially top management as well, who maintains credibility by walking its talk and keeping 100% its integrity – the values’ discipline is strictly enforced across the company. In SWA, values are mandatory behavior guidelines.

    Why are values important for Southwest Airlines employee motivation? For the following reason: The top three SWA values are – in this order of appearance:

  • Employees
  • Customers
  • Stockholders

    Translation: The SWA organization exists first and foremost, to exceed its employees’ expectations; in a close second, to exceed its customers’ expectations; and in close third, to exceed its stockholders’ expectations.

    Stop and think for a moment:

  • In your company where you work right now, are the employees’ values that they live by every working day, identical to the company’s corporate values?
  • If your answer is “no,” your company has a clear area of opportunity.
  • If you don’t even know what your company’s corporate values are, your company has a gigantic are of opportunity.


    Just underneath SWA mission statement – on the SWA web site – it reads:

    “To our employees: We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.”

    According to SWA values, employees come first – this is not some lip service payment to workers from top management – and SWA workers know this for a fact.

    The employees’ personal well being is a most important matter for SWA leadership – the entire company places significant importance on every single job. All employees are highly valued and respected as individuals, which in turn, this engenders strong feelings of mutual belief, trust, and certainty (read motivation) to perform.

    Top management is meticulously careful to invest heavily in training, in development, and in the creation of opportunity for everybody – the company is willing to take risks on its people to a degree that might seem extreme for outsiders.

    No wonder Southwest Airlines employee motivation is outstanding.

    Stop and think for a moment:

  • Are employees, customers, and stockholders among your company’s most important corporate values?
  • If your answer is “no,” your company might want to redesign its value system and its corresponding culture (culture boils down to this: “the way we do things around here”). Among other authors, John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett in “Corporate Culture and Performance” (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY: 1992) found that the high performing companies have value systems that REALLY care about all three constituencies (employees, customers, and stockholders).


    Workers know that the company provides meaningful recognition and rewards for their performance – they know exactly what it is the company gives them in return for their exceptional work – there is no doubt about it.

    The entire company (read everybody at all levels in the organization) places particular importance in exploring every conceivable technique, approach, and device to recognize excellent performance – this is an ongoing effort where everybody is involved.

    The organization recognizes all employees directly in proportion to their personal accomplishments – and SWA does so by rewarding and celebrating them in many different ways, by direct supervisors and peers as well as upper management.

    This generates a contagious collective energy across the whole organization – and as a consequence, the work environment is animated with eagerness, enthusiasm, and joy – it is an environment that employees love.

    In this Southwest Airlines employee motivation context, formal compensation is of secondary importance.

    By profusely rewarding its employees for excellent performance, SWA is able to maintain loyalty, job satisfactions, and high levels of personal motivation.

    Stop and think for a moment:

  • When was the last time your boss honestly and personally recognized your performance? How did you feel? Did his/her genuine recognition motivate you?
  • When was the last time you honestly and personally recognized the performance of your direct reports?

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    4) MISSION

    “The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.”

    However, SWA accomplishment is NOT in the writing of its mission – any company could have written the very same mission statement – Southwest Airlines employee motivation does not reside in its mission itself.

    Rather, Southwest Airlines employee motivation exists in the fact that SWA has been able to frame its work as part of a deep and rewarding purpose (its mission) that employees find fulfilling.

    In the mission arena, SWA accomplishment is this: Southwest Airlines employee motivation exists in the fact that SWA has been able to place its mission as a noble purpose in the eyes of its employees, and as a consequence of this, its employees visualize a dignified mission for their organization that rises above any short-term financial profits.

    The force of a mission – any mission statement – is not found in its wording (however, a mission statement must be well written), but in the organization’s capacity to transform its mission into a live force embodied in every single worker – and Southwest Airlines employee motivation is fueled by this.

    Stop and think for a moment:

  • Is your company’s mission statement alive in the everyday behaviors of your company’s entire workforce?
  • If your answer is “no,” your company has a clear area of opportunity.
  • If you don’t even know what your company’s mission statement says, your company has a gigantic are of opportunity.

    5) HIRING

    SWA has a VERY rigorous hiring procedure – nothing and nobody is left to chance and/or to gut feeling.

    The SWA search and selection processes are by far much more meticulous than at most other companies – the selection is purposeful.

    Deciding who becomes a permanent worker of the company is a significant decision – SWA goes to great lengths to make certain that they get the best of the right candidates.

    Plus, a permanent rehiring way of thinking prevails – employees are expected to maintain top performance, or else …

    In other words, Southwest Airlines employee motivation is not an option – if you genuinely like it here, you stay; but one thing is for sure, if you don’t like it, you can not fake it for long.

    SWA is not for everybody – and so it goes for all high performance organizations with strong corporate cultures.

    Stop and think for a moment:

  • Does your company also have rigorous search and selection processes in order to guarantee your company gets only the best of the right candidates? Or do managers make gut decisions when hiring new employees?
  • If gut decision-making plays a role in your company’s hiring practice, your organization has a clear area of opportunity. Remember, any team is as good as the players it is made out of.


    SWA has a strong leadership at the top AND throughout the management hierarchy – top executives genuinely take for granted that everyone is able to lead in significant ways.

    Most employees at most organizational levels play leadership roles as needed – most workers start actions that other employees will follow.

    Becoming skilled at leading is everybody’s duty at SWA – and to make this happen, top management invests a great deal in front line leaders.

    What does distributed leadership has to do with Southwest Airlines employee motivation? SWA doesn’t hire candidates who don’t get thrilled with the possibility of leading. In this context, leading is inherently motivating.

    Since the essence of leadership is change, a positive organizational change index creates a higher degree of adaptability, which is necessary now more than ever – only cultures that help organizations anticipate and adapt to environmental changes will have superior performance over the long haul.

    Stop and think for a moment:

  • Does your company have a broad-base leadership? If not, your company has a clear area of opportunity.
  • If your company’s top management denies this fact, your company might not be able to adapt to the increasing number of incoming environmental changes. What does this mean in the medium to long-term time frame for your company? A possibility: becoming a dinosaur – extinct.


    A key feature of SWA performance management is its performance transparency.

    To begin with, SWA obsessively measures three dimension of performance:

  • Employee well being
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Shareholder gain

    Hence, in order to reach their clearly articulated goals, the performance of the average worker is critical; therefore, SWA emphasizes a rigorous tracking and rewarding of individual performance, coupled with clear, immediate and straight feedback.

    It goes without saying that goals, roles, and responsibilities are crystal clear – across the SWA organization, anybody (anytime, anywhere) can spell for you performance metrics that matter to the company.

    All employees at SWA have a clear image of the background in which they work, they clearly comprehend how performance is measured, and what it is they can do in order to improve it.

    The focal point on performance begins with recruiting and hiring, and it goes on throughout the performance appraisal, recognition, and reward processes.

    The understanding of current individual performance, current departmental performance, and current organizational performance – in other words: having the big picture – is a key factor not only in Southwest Airlines employee motivation, but also in any employee motivation setting.

    Stop and think for a moment:

  • Do employees at your company enjoy this degree of performance transparency? If not, why not?

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    The Southwest Airlines employee motivation phenomenon is the result of all these factors (and perhaps others) combined.


    Kevin Freiberg: “Nuts! Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success” (Bard Press, Austin, TX: 1996).

    Jon R. Katzenbach: “Peak Performance: Aligning the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees” (HBSP, Boston, MA: 2000). Note: this book inspired me to write this article.

    Lorraine Grubbs-West: “Lessons in Loyalty: How Southwest Airlines Does It - An Insider's View” (CornerStone Leadership Institute, Dallas, TX: 2005).

    Jody Hoffer Gittell: “The Southwest Airlines Way: Using the Power of Relationships to Achieve High Performance” (McGraw-Hill, New York, NY: 2005).

    If you would like to explore how to motivate your entire organizational workforce as the Southwest Airlines employee motivation phenomenon through our consulting services, please click on this link.

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