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Southwest Airlines Culture Design Puts Employees First

The secret behind Southwest Airlines success: how the regional airline created a fun, loving culture.

By Gustavo Razzetti

January 12, 2020

Mapping Southwest’s fun, loving culture

Southwest Airlines is a company where people work hard and play hard.

“The business of business is People.”–Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines’ culture is the perfect example that being human and vulnerable can drive huge dividends. One of the most common misconceptions about culture is that it’s something squishy and soft. Here’s a perfect example that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Putting employees’ happiness first has created strong business results for Southwest Airlines, which include:

  • 44 consecutive years of profitability
  • #1 lowest number of customer complaints
  • 85% of employees say they’re proud to work for Southwest
  • No layoffs, no furloughs, ever

Southwest has its own definition of culture:

The development, improvement, and refinement of the originality, individuality, identity, and personality of a given people.

The unique, fun, loving culture of Southwest has been a core component of its success.

The airline encourages its employees to innovate, communicate, understand, and care.

The Core of Southwest's Culture: Values and Purpose

A well-designed workplace culture is a sustainable competitive advantage.

Competitors can’t simply adopt the levels of engagement and commitment found in the company  – it takes a special kind of employee and company culture.

Southwest’s use of humor is not only successful, but hard to replicate. The airline turned it into a powerful tool to build empathy with customers during tough events.

“Competitors can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty — the feeling that you are participating in a crusade,” — Herb Kelleher

Southwest Airlines’ purpose is: Connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, low-cost air travel.”

Southwest Airlines core values:

Live the Southwest Way

Warrior Spirit

  • Strive to be the best
  • Display a sense of urgency
  • Never give up

Servant’s Heart

  • Follow the Golden Rule
  • Treat others with respect
  • Embrace our Southwest Family

Fun-LUVing Attitude (*)

  • Be a passionate Team Player
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Celebrate successes

(*) This is how Southwest spells “love;” the company’s stock ticker symbol is LUV.

Work the Southwest Way

Work Safely

  • Follow standard operating procedures
  • Identify and report hazards
  • Respect and comply with regulations

Wow Our Customers

  • Deliver world-class Hospitality
  • Create memorable connections
  • Be famous for friendly service

Keep Costs Low

  • Show up and work hard
  • Protect our ProfitSharing
  • Find a better way

Empathy, luv, and humor are paramount at Southwest Airlines.

Southwest’s Culture Priorities:

Employee happiness even over customer satisfaction

Customers even over stakeholders

Humor even over corporate behavior

Behaviors that are rewarded or punished

The airline’s “Bags Fly Free” marketing campaign is clear proof of how Southwest puts its money where its mouth us  –  the airline has consistently never charged for checked bags.

Most companies expect employees to act in a particular way; Southwest gives them total freedom to express themselves.  

After a flight was delayed for over two hours, a gate agent stepped in. The Southwest employee started playing games with the passengers. One was a contest for the worst driver’s license picture.

The employee couldn’t do anything about the delay, but at least he showed empathy and helped make their experience less painful.

Southwest doesn’t tolerate dishonesty and lack of integrity. Also, the company punishes those who lack a sense of humor; it’s crucial to be hired at the airline.

Southwest Airlines: The Emotional Culture

“Culture is everybody’s job,” said Ginger Hardage, former SVP of Culture and Communications, Southwest.

Psychological Safety

Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, taught us that you don’t have to check your heart or sense of humor at the office door.

Successful organizations integrate both their emotional and cognitive cultures–they make it safe for people to be themselves and be genuine, just like Kelleher did.

Southwest allows employees to speak up and decide how best to do their work. They just had to follow one rule: be aligned with the company’s purpose .

The author of The Fearless Organization, Amy C. Edmondson, believes Southwest Airlines qualifies as a “psychologically safe” workplace. Its environment combines humor with responsibility

“People feel their voice is valued,” Edmondson said. “At Southwest, they’re incredibly collaborative and engaged in getting planes turned around quickly and safely. Southwest is a terrific example of a culture that has worked hard to ensure its employees know that their voices are valued and welcome.”

Southwest’s most distinctive organizational competency is its ability to build and sustain relationships characterized by:

  • Shared goals
  • Shared knowledge
  • Mutual respect

Focus on relationships is the fundamental driver of leadership, culture, strategy, and coordination at Southwest. Employees embrace their connections with one another, which allows better coordination across teams and functions.

Also, Southwest encourages all employees to value the contributions of their colleagues and to consider the impact of their actions on others.

Cross-functional performance measures that Southwest uses encourage employees to focus on learning, rather than on blaming, when things go wrong. As a result, they bolster relationships of shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect.

Resolving conflicts is a means of strengthening relationships that inspire effective coordination, too.

Lastly, Southwest Airlines takes care of its people in bad times, not just in good times. The airline openly recognizes deaths, births, and other major events in the lives of people and their families. It has even established a Catastrophic Fund to provide aid when needed.

Southwest Airlines Rituals

Hilarious safety announcements are a staple at Southwest flights.

Many passengers have reported the following safety announcement, “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, put your mask on. If you have a child put their mask on second. If you have more than one child then pick the one you love the most.”

Cultural Blitzs are unexpected events that a group of employees runs to show their appreciation to flight crews. It includes giving snacks and good wishes for the day ahead. One of the surprises includes cleaning the plane between flights – traditionally the responsibility of the flight attendants.

Shout outs: each week, the CEO publicly praises employees who have gone above and beyond at work. Also, an employee who shined that month is featured in Southwest’s magazine.

Events: celebrating is something Southwest is known for – the Company is full of fun and creative events. Employees enjoy annual celebrations such as Spirit Parties, Chili Cook-offs, and the Southwest Rallies.


Southwest’s development and promotion practices are tied to the company values. In annual performance appraisals and 360-degree reviews, employees are measured not just on results, but on how they get results.

Employees get actual ratings for their warrior spirit, servant’s heart, and fun-loving attitude.

Managers act as coaches. While the industry has reduced the amount of middle management, Southwest has done the opposite.

Directly contradicting the notion that supervisors perpetuate bureaucracy, the servant leadership model has helped Southwest’s managers turned into effective coaches.

Preserving company culture is crucial. Supervisors go beyond measuring performance or disciplining “bad apples”; they support people to solve problems and provide encouragement and constructive feedback.

Southwest’s Culture Design Canvas: The Functional Culture

Meeting Culture

The Culture Committee consists of employees from across the organization who applied to be members.

In addition to their regular job, this team meets to create events and ideas to keep the Southwest culture alive.

Leadership meetings are transparent – they’re taped and shared with employees.

The Southwest Rallies are a four-city tour; an opportunity to celebrate the culture, hear encouraging news from Senior Leadership, and mingle with Cohearts.

Each Rally kicks off with fun pre-program activities including games, prizes, and more. Executive Leaders share news and celebrate people. Afterward,  the program includes an after-party that promotes team building and strengthens relationships while having fun.

Rules & Norms

At Southwest, norms and rules are designed with employee input.

Decision-Making at Southwest

Decision making is managed by worker/management committees.

Employees are encouraged to be responsible and are given the authority to make decisions. Southwest’s employees have input into all policies and procedures.

All decisions are weighed against Southwest’s commitment to honesty and integrity.

Southwest Airlines expects employees to act like owners. It encourages people to take initiative (the fun safety announcements are a perfect example of this).

There’s a story about a little boy who lost his backpack on a Southwest flight. The Southwest stewardess took care of finding the lost backpack herself and moved heaven and earth until she did.

She then sent it to the boy with a note sharing all the experiences that the bear went through while he was away. No-one instructed the employee to go that extra mile; it’s part of people’s attitudes.

You Might Also Like

The Culture Design Canvas
Culture Design Canvas: Examples of Thriving Companies
A Purpose that Costs Nothing Is Not Worth Having
What Is Workplace Culture? Why You Should Care?

Sources used for Southwest Airlines’ culture canvas

To map Southwest Airlines’ culture, I used the following resources, among many others:

Southwest Gets It with Our Culture

Careers at Southwest: Our Culture

Doing the Right Thing

The Southwest Airlines Way (Book)

Behind the Southwest Airlines Culture 

Southwest Airlines Reveals 5 Culture Lessons

The Cloud 9 Culture

How Southwest Airlines Hires Such Dedicated People

Jokes And Humor from Southwest Airlines

Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success

What do you think?



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