The “Southwest Test”


Last week I met with an executive who’d called me in to help her with strategic planning and team building. I noticed right away her lack of eye contact and her brusque manner. What she told me was this: “I want to build a great team” and “I have an open door policy.” What I heard was: “I don’t have time for you or for this conversation.”

Struck by this contradiction, I remembered the Southwest Test. Imagine you’re flying on Southwest. You’ve found yourself an aisle seat. The window and middle seats next to you are open. As people stream down the aisle looking for a place to sit, what do you do?

If your orientation is toward other people, you make eye contact when someone wants to move into your row you help them out, accepting the need to get out of your seat as part of the flying experience. But if your orientation is not toward other people, you avoid eye contact, keeping your face buried in a newspaper. When someone tries to take a seat next to you, you look up with annoyance and let them fend for themselves.

This “Southwest Test” may not seem like much. But it says a lot about who you are and your ability to relate to other people. A lot of information is transmitted in those few moments – am I a person who can be counted on to look out for other people? Or am I a primarily looking out for myself?

Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted research in which he found that 7 percent of any message is conveyed through words, 38 percent through vocal inflection, and 55 percent through non-verbal elements (facial expression, posture, gestures etc.). From his research comes the popular statistic that 93 percent of all communication is non-verbal.

I wanted to ask the woman executive if she thought there was any contradiction in the messages she conveyed. But after 15 minutes, she looked at her watch and told me she didn’t have time to talk further. I exited her office, wondering how long she would last in her job.

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