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Southwest Airlines Co: Motivation Philosophy and Practices Company


The importance of behavior occurring in the workplace cannot be denied for both employees and employers. For the former it is especially important, being a place in which they spend almost third of their lifetime. For employers, workplace behaviors of employees are important as well, in which understanding the motivation for such behaviors is an important aspect. As motivation varies over time, it influences the ongoing stream of behavior (Reeve, 2008, p. 15). The decrease in the motivation of employees can reduce the contribution of employees to the organization in the long term, which in turn will impact the goals of the company. The most obvious motivational factor might be seen through the monetary reward, which typically achieves a short lived impact on performance. There are other motivational strategies that help increasing performance in the workplace today.

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In that regard, the present paper will attempt to examine various motivational strategies, based on the example of such workplace as customer service in airline industries. Such workplace is common and familiar for many people. At the same time, the impact of performance in such area is important, where according to a 2002 consumer survey from Jupiter Media Metrix, travel is the top category in which customer service is the most important factor affecting the decision to buy (Greenspan, 2002). The airplane customer service workplace will be based on the case of Southwest Airlines.


Southwest Airlines Co. is a domestic airlines company, incorporated in Texas. A stated on the company’s website, “Southwest is the United States’ most successful low fare, high frequency, point-to-point carrier” (Southwest Airlines, 2010). The selection of specifically Southwest Company can be explained by the fact of the commitment of the company to increasing the quality of customer service, and partially dedicating their success to such commitment. Then company indicates such aspect in their mission statement, which reads that “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” (Southwest Airlines, 2010). In that regard, motivational strategies can be used to explain such commitment by the company.

Customer Service in Airlines Industry

One of the ways in which customer support services is trying to improve their productivity is the increased emphasis and reliance on Information Technologies (IT). Online booking and reservations along with online information services can be seen as tools that make the customer support less dissatisfaction by the customer, and eliminating the human factor (Greenspan, 2002). In that regard, it can be assumed that such initiatives will reduce the costs and thus, will drive the productivity of the company. Nevertheless, the human factor cannot be eliminated entirely in such workplace, and thus, the focus on employees should be of vital importance to such field as customer support. The success of Southwest Airlines through their focus on employees can serve as an example of the use of motivational strategies.

Motivation Philosophy and Practices

The motivation strategy used by the company can be mainly explained by positive psychology, one example of which is embedded in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The main focus of the strategy of the company, as explained in their mission statement, is the focus on customer service. In that regard, as stated by Colleen Barrett, former Executive Vice President of Southwest Airlines and the current President Emerita and Corporate Secretary, “our first customer is our employees … Second is our passengers and third are our stockholders” (Baldoni, 2005, p. 22). Maslow’s hierarchy of need, in that regard, can be used to explain the philosophy of Southwest Airlines. Such model is based on the preposition that the needs can be organized into a hierarchical cluster, arranged by strengths, which are physiological needs and psychological needs, which can be divided into safety and security needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs (Reeve, 2008). The physiological and the security needs can be seen through meeting the economic needs of the employees.

Such economic needs can be seen mostly directed toward safety and security needs, including such aspects as profit sharing plan, medical and dental benefits, and other practices, all of which contributed to that Southwest was named “one of the 100 best places to work in IT in 2010” (Southwest Airlines, 2010). The motivation through fulfillment of such needs can be seen be seen extrinsic, mostly achieved through external regulations. Such regulations are viewed as non-self-determined extrinsic motivation, which are performed to obtain a reward and an incentive (Reeve, 2008). It should be noted that in terms of satisfying those needs through incentives and bonuses, it was not the competitive advantage of the company, where the salaries bonuses and incentives as motivators are only good as they last. Accordingly, being put at the bottom of the hierarchy model by Maslow implies that they are most likely satisfied by the majority of employers in all industries, i.e. legally obliged to satisfy those needs. Considering the fact that Southwest Airlines are distinguished by their exceptional treatment of their employees, it can be stated that it is the satisfaction of other needs in the hierarchy that might have brought the level of commitment seen in the company, increasing its overall productivity.

The focus on psychological needs can be seen in the company through nurturing the sense of relatedness in the company. The relatedness can be defined as “the psychological need to establish close emotional bonds and attachments with other people, and it reflects the desire to be emotionally connected to and interpersonally involved in warm relationships” (Reeve, 2008, p. 162). The reflection of such focus in the practices of the company can be seen through the creation of a unique culture, one example of which is LUV, a set of values that guide the way employees treat each other and customers (Southwest Airlines, 2010). Such practice in is concerned with the leadership of the company bas well, where treating people right can be seen as among the distinctive characteristics Barlett described the company. In that regard, feeling as an important part of the company’s success, make employees be related to the success of the company, which according to the company’s statement is always a priority.

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Analyzing the company’s website, reports, mission statements and objectives, employees are often mentioned as one of the main parts of the success of the company. The focus on relatedness can be also explained by the object relations theory. Research in object relations theory indicates that when the need for relatedness is nurtured, “a person develops positive mental models of him- or herself, of significant others, and of relations in general… [enabling] the person to develop, and or relate to others, in ways that are healthy, growth-oriented” (Reeve, 2008, p. 414). The success of the company in such motivational strategy can be also explained by the internalization process. Internalization is the process in which externally prescribed regulation is transcribed into an internally endorsed one (Reeve, 2008). The socialization as a part of the company’s culture provides the context in which internalization might occur.


Despite the success of the company, it can be stated that there are other motivational theories, which are currently not employed by the company that would benefit the employees and the management. One theory is of actualization tendency by Rogers. Such theory support the hierarchy of needs by Maslow, although puts more emphasis on the individual realization of one’s talents, capacities and potentialities (Reeve, 2008, p. 445). The context of such theory in the case of customer support in Southwest airlines can be seen in that despite the motivational strategies put by the company, they mostly focus on team work, rather than on the individual development of each employee. The implementation of such theory might imply practices that build on the strengths and the competencies of each employee. The company might have to emphasize such psychological need of employees as autonomy, which can b serve as motivational strategy the will focus on self-actualization. The impact on the company can be seen through providing leadership initiatives, and allowing creative ideas to be nurtured in the company. Additionally, less control might be required to guide the behavior of employees, when their autonomy will be supported.

Another theory would follow up on the self-actualization emphasis, which is expectancy motivation. According to such theory the expectancy of efficiency and the outcome can be seen as initiators of a certain behavior. In that regard, autonomy can be related to such aspect, where efficiency can be seen as the belief of the person in that he will be able to perform such task. One way to influence self-efficiency can be seen through verbal persuasion, coaching, seminars, training courses, etc (Reeve, 2008, p. 236). The impact of such theory on the company can be seen similarly in nurturing the autonomy of the personal and less control needed to regulate their behavior. Providing models of behavior is another way to inhibit self-efficacy.


It can be concluded that the strategies employed by Southwest Airlines can be seen as an example of the way the focus on the motivation of employees can become fruitful, specifically considering that the lackluster performance of employees in such industry can directly correlate with the customer intention for purchase. The focus on employees being a priority and the main asset of the company is an important part of the success in such field as customer support. Considering the ratings in which Southwest airlines are among the top companies to work for and the size of the market in which it operates, it can be stated that such motivational theories indeed increased their productivity, especially in a field in which customer support is important. The theories recommended in this paper to be implemented by the company, in that matter, serve merely to emphasize the autonomy of the personnel and less control by the management.


Baldoni, J. (2005). Great motivation secrets of great leaders. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Greenspan, R. (2002). Customer Service is Key to Travelers. Customer Service Zone. Web.

Reeve, J. (2008). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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Southwest Airlines. (2010). Southwest: Fact Sheet. Southwest Airlines Co. Web.

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