Split Personality

Message Reinforcement Gone Horribly Wrong

I love using the Transportation Security Administration as an example of things not to do. First, the bad ideas just keep rolling in, so I’m never at a loss for new material. Second, people don’t get all defensive on me when I’m mocking a government agency.

And so, we find ourselves at the American Airlines gate at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, about to board our flight to Chicago. The gate agent announces that, as an added security step, some of us will be pulled from the boarding line to have our carry-on items checked a second time.

It’s not quite a random check, essentially every third passenger. One agent directs me to a folding table where a second agent has me open my briefcase. The second agent looks inside, opens absolutely none of the various interior pockets and sends me on my way.

And I’m thinking, what was the point of this? If it was to demonstrate incompetence, it was a job well done. After all, here is the most likely gap between what the TSA intended and what they achieved:

Intended message: Show passengers that we are serious about security. Let any potential terrorists know they aren’t safe just because they got past our first screen.

Actual message: We can’t be sure we detected threats the first time around, so we’re going to try again, but not with everyone and not in an intrusive way. So our second check will be even less effective than our first one, which, did we mention, we don’t think was good enough.

Clearly, if the TSA thought there was a specific threat to our flight, they should have checked everyone and everything carefully. If they didn’t have specific concerns, they shouldn’t have wasted resources at the gate.

Now that we’re all finished laughing at the federal government, it’s time to look at our own conflicting messages. What do we do that undermines our intended message to the marketplace? Do we sell customer service and deliver a very unhelpful help desk? Do we promote the personal touch and deliver the same old voice mail prompts? Do we offer discount coupons and then punish the customers who dare to use them?

One of the biggest sinkholes in business is the completely avoidable habit of both investing in growth and neutralizing that effort at the same time. It happens all the time. It’s probably happening right now, somewhere in your company.


Written by Michael Rosenbaum on September 9th, 2012. Posted in Performance Improvement, Strategic Insights

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment