Relational Coordination: The Southwest Airlines Way

Southwest's Success

Southwest Airlines arguably has the best quality and on time performance figures of any airline. The airlines success is often put down to Herb Kelleher’s quirky leadership which has shaped Southwest’s culture into one which values, humour, altruism, and trust (Landes, 2008). But in her book ’The Southwest Airlines Way’, Jody Gittell (2005) points to high performance relationships based around shared goals, shared knowledge, mutual respect and frequent and effective communication as the real underlying reasons for the airlines success. Gittell calls this Relational Coordination.

Relational Coordination

Although relationships are relatively ‘soft’ organisational factors and easy to neglect, Gittell (2005) argues that shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect can all make substantial contributions to effective coordination and subsequently to the efficiency and quality of organisational performance. Likewise she also found that communication and relationships were highly correlated and when employees engaged in frequent, timely, problem-solving communication, relationships of the type noted above flourished.

The 10 Principles of Relational Coordination

  1. Lead with credibility and caring - Charismatic leadership with the ability to relate the mission of an organisation to deeply held aspirations, values and ideals shared by employees.
  2. Invest in frontline leadership - Even organisations with relatively flat structures need sufficient numbers of highly competent supervisors to allow them to work side-by-side with frontline staff, gaining their respect and fully understanding the tasks required.
  3. Hire and train for Relational Coordination - Jobs not only require functional expertise but also the ability to interact with others to acheive organisational goals; Relational Competence.
  4. Using conflicts to build relationships - Conflicts provide opportunities to learn within organisation as long as they are task related.
  5. Bridge the work/family divide - Relational competence is improved if employees are allowed to build strong family and community relationships.
  6. Create boundary spanners - By building a web of relationships based on shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect, Boundary Spanners are able to develop Relational Coordination between organisational functions.
  7. Avoid finger pointing - Measure performance broadly - By avoiding functional accountability and 'Finger pointing', which can undermine learning and information sharing, and instead using cross organisational performance measurements, there can be positive impact on shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect
  8. Keep jobs flexible at boundaries - Job flexibility is associated with higher levels of relational coordination because two-way negotiations and higher levels of trust are required if they are to be successful.
  9. Make Unions your partners, not adversaries - It is not the level of union representation, but the quality of the relationship, which determines organisational performance, as any disrespect shown by management towards one union may be translated into disrespect by employees.
  10. Build relationships with your suppliers - By taking a proactive, partnership oriented approach to relationships with suppliers, opportunities for learning and improved performance become available to both parties.

By developing and employing these 10 principles of relationship-based performance Southwest is able to manage the levels of relational coordination within the airline and therefore overcome the disadvantages associated with short-haul flying. Cheifly being able to successfully turnaround aircraft quicker and more efficiently than was thought possible, whilst at the same time maintaining the highest levels of quality, in terms of fewer delays and lost bags.

Application to Health and Safety Management Systems

The benefits associated with Relational Coordination can also be expected to transfer to health and safety performance. In his functional Health & Safety Management System, Jose Pérezgonzález (2005) stresses the importance of coordination, derived from the management of cooperation, to achieve improved organisational health and safety conformity.

1. GITTELL, Jody Hoffer (2003). The Southwest Airlines way: Using the power of relationships to achieve high performance. New York: McGraw-Hill.
2. LANDES, L. (2008, November-December). Cracking the culture code. Communication World, pp. 24-28. Retrieved May 5, 2010 from the World Wide Web:[]
: label ; PÉREZGONZÁLEZ, Jose D. (2005). //An alternative way of managing health & safety (Knowledge management edition). Raleigh, NC, USA: Pergonomas/Lulu Press.

Want to know more?

Herb Kelleher
A short biography of Southwest Airlines' inspirational founder.
Southwest's History
Link to the History page on the airline's website.
Jody Gittell
Link to the author's website.

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors

Anthony FryerAnthony Fryer

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