Culture Framework Part 6: Symbolism | Southwest Airlines’ Heart of Symbolism
Symbols act as a visual shorthand to allow external audiences to identify brands. But they are even more important to employees and those with more intimate connections to a brand because they can convey and connote so much more meaning.
Symbols represent the reality employees experience in their day-to-day work. Effective symbols in the workplace reflect the tenants they represent. Symbols comprise an essential element of the Culture Framework because they provide an instant reminder of their shared experiences and history together. Strong, effective symbolism inspires a visceral reaction and instantly calls to mind powerful feelings, but also represents a depth of collective experience that calls for more nuanced interpretation and scrutiny.
It’s hard to conjure symbols out of nothing and impose them on an organization. Instead, leveraging the symbols that are inextricably interwoven with the multifaceted dimensions each brand and organization enables them to acquire even greater significance over time.
Google “Southwest safety announcement”, and you’ll find dozens of videos of Southwest flight attendants putting their own spin on the standard pre-flight speech. They’re witty and personality-driven, but efficient and attention-grabbing. Despite their lightheartedness, they always cover all required material in an inspired way. And they are a perfect symbol for the airline’s culture framework that centers on fun and wears its heart on its sleeve.
“Living the Southwest Way” means employees embody a Warrior Spirit, a Servant’s Heart and a Fun-LUVing Attitude. These values encourage employees to strive to be the best, embrace the Southwest family, celebrate successes and perhaps most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. Some airlines stress their amenities and sybaritic luxury, but Southwest is all about taking you where you need to go with a common esprit de corps. All of these tenants are alive in these pre-flight safety announcements. They are tiny insights into the priorities of the organization and hallmarks of its spirit, and they serve as living symbols of the culture’s personality.
The way this ritual is treated by the 50-year-old airline offers a unique look inside the company’s perspective on culture — where fun and passion are at the very root of everything employees do at work and in their lives. Companies across every industry can benefit from a public display of culture like this.
Southwest’s take on the pre-flight announcement is a public symbol of a company’s internal mindset. But from day one, the airline has been different in their company culture and it’s something that more and more companies seem to be doing. They have long referred to the employee-passenger interaction as “the value zone”, and have been keen to display their fun-driven organizational attitude. And what may seem to be a trendy millennial appeal has in fact existed at the airline from its very first CEO, Co-founder Herb Kelleher. That’s what continues to make this mindset so genuine, even as it evolves. Kelleher was in many ways a pioneer, and it’s that spirit that is still propelling Southwest forward today.
Being ahead of the culture curve in the modern employer market requires a keen eye for social media, and Southwest has really invested in this aspect of their organizational culture. They have honed in on a voice that is appealing to both passengers and employees alike, but it’s their YouTube channel, “NutsAboutSouthwest” that has emerged as the strongest social symbol of internal pride and values.
Southwest has always been a company that celebrates success, and the videos found on their channel continue that story. They tell the tales of adopted children being reunited with their biological parents, Southwest’s medical grant program and other inspiring events facilitated by air travel. But they also focus a lot of their attention on employee accomplishments. From their highlight of female pilots at the company to this generational passing of the baton from a pilot to his two sons, NutsAboutSouthwest is a growing symbol and archive of the company’s celebration of their employees’ lives and work. It’s also an embodiment of Keller’s motto, “Employees First” — an ideology that has only evolved under current CEO Gary C. Kelly, who joined the company as a controller in 1986 and took his seat at the helm in 2008.
It’s becoming increasingly important for your company’s culture framework to have this social cog, but it’s equally as important to have it echo the internal values of your organization. Employees, and the public in general, can spot a phony social campaign from a mile away. It’s the double-edged sword of having such an accessible channel and symbol of your culture. It can be a true boon to your organization or it can be a public display of cultural failure, as many companies’ lesser-developed tactics have shown.
NutsAboutSouthwest, however, is a perfect culmination of the airline’s culture of fun, their celebration of successes and the values that make Southwest’s people some of the most organizationally-invested employees out there.
Southwest employees’ investment in company values doesn’t stop at the workplace, either. The organization is adamant about their values being a part of an employee’s life and bringing those values to their communities. The Southwest Citizenship is a steadfast symbol of this initiative, and it helps to connect the organization’s culture to the community around them — which, considering the global nature of the company, can be a real challenge.
Beyond the somewhat standard charitable giving, volunteerism and environmentalism, becoming a Southwest Citizen means having the heart to “Live the Southwest Way” in every aspect of life. The Citizenship program is a symbol that gives real credence to the organization’s values for employees and the people that they connect with through this outreach.
Southwest’s symbolism and strength of value are incredible examples in the world of organizational culture. When a company wears their heart on their sleeve, their culture can grow and evolve with the public. Putting your organizational culture in the public eye with the support of strong symbolism will help to build strong ties between employees, your company and the world around you.
Culture Framework, Part 6: Symbolism