The Power of Play At Work Case Study: Southwest Airlines

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Southwest Flight Attendants Playing

Southwest Flight Attendant, Marty Cobb, was reviewing the safety features of the 737 aircraft and said “as you know, this is a no smoking, no whining, no complaining flight. This is a please and thank you and you are such a good looking flight attendant flight…if you have small children, we are sorry. Choose to put the oxygen mask on the one with the most earning potential.” The group of cynical, weary business travelers busted out laughing and the safety explanation ended in applause.

Now, why would an airline company encourage their staff to play at work like this?

Why take the risk of coming off as “unprofessional” just so their staff can have some fun?

According to Southwest Airlines, it’s worth the risk. Whether you are a fan of Southwest or not, they have been implementing an interesting play experiment that is worth paying attention to. This company has decided to provide their employees an opportunity to play and be their unique, authentic selves. In fact, they encourage it. A main value is embracing a Fun-LUVing attitude.

The results are videos being posted by passengers about Southwest, saying “this is the most fun I have ever had on a flight.” When was the last time you said that about any flight? Now this isn’t happening on every Southwest flight, but I’ve experienced it enough times to have etched a positive memory in my mind of this no-frills airline.

It hasn’t cost Southwest anything extra to give their employees a platform to play more at work. By offering their employees a chance to express their fuller selves, Southwest believes it will pay dividends, both in terms of happy customers and staff, as well as revenue.

Is there a direct correlation between the amount of play and their success? Perhaps.

Southwest had the lowest rate of consumer complaints of the top U.S. Airlines in 2017 and ranked in the top 3 U.S. Airlines by Money Magazine. Speaking with Southwest Flight Attendant, Carla Thomas, she stated “we have a saying at inflight. We don’t quit. We die or retire.” Companies would give anything to have that level of loyalty especially in this transient work climate.

Recently, Simon Sinek, highlighted this in a story, where he asked a Barista who works for two different companies why he loves his job at one place, while he loathes the other. He said, “at one job, my managers look to catch us when we do things wrong…while here, I feel I can be myself.”

Being your full self at work takes a certain amount of trust. When it comes to business, we sometimes forget that people, both employees and customers, desire to connect and be seen. That connection is what makes an experience turn from good to great and what compels someone to come back. All that is possible when you allow your employees to play more.

When I’m flying on other airlines, I can sense when a flight attendant has been advised to act a certain way. It can come off as a rehearsed facade, which is off-putting and prevents any type of sincere connection. It results in an ‘meh’ experience. And the last way you want someone to describe an experience is “meh.”

Giving staff the flexibility, trust, and a platform to play can bring huge rewards, including a happier work environment, higher retention, and an overall notion that you care.

So, how do you create a playful work culture that not only provides a memorable experience for your employees, but also your customers?

Create opportunities for your employees to authentically play and connect with people in their own way.

Start by asking yourself some tough questions:

  • How am I showing up to work and modeling how I play for others?
  • Am I creating an environment where my employees feel they can be their authentic selves and play more?
  • Am I willing to take the risk to let my staff be seen?

If you are too concerned about what will happen if you allow your employees to be seen, you also risk losing the opportunity to create authentic connections between your customers and your staff.

Once you address these questions, you can then dive deeper with your staff and ask, how would you like to show up at work? What would be your play at work? How can your work be more fun and fulfilling for you? And see where that conversation might take you.

It might lead you and your company on a more fun, playful ride that also benefits your organization for years to come.

Written by

Positive Psychology Play Speaker & Coach / Find Ways To Rediscover Your Play at

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