Aggressive Leadership Style of Ryanair

Leaders shape cultures so should we really be surprised to hear of the problems Ryanair are facing at the moment.  All leadership and employee engagement research could have predicted the outcome, yet as a willing participants, as customers, we still seem surprised.

Michael O’Leary may have gained the vote of confidence of shareholders but can the aggressive leadership style really make a positive impact on the long term success of the airline?

Many of Ryanairs problems appear to be as a result of the aggressive top down, autocratic leadership style.  Decisions are made at the top and the people within the organisation are treated as a commodity to act out the decisions.  When asked, the employees could see where the issues and potential problems were, yet no bottom up solutions were made, or listened to.  When the leader fails to listen to the people and acts as ultimate decision maker and font of all wisdom, then we see a culture of “emperors new clothes” all over again.

Sure Michael O’Leary is responsible for the problems, and has been trusted to fix them, but with such a disengaged workforce, will he be successful?

The warning signs

  1. High turnover of inexperienced staff: To keep costs low, Ryanair have taken inexperienced pilots and put them on zero hours contracts and forced them to set up as a limited company.  The pilots must pay over 25k euros to undertake the training, and during training they are not paid.  For six months the pilots must pay for their own accommodation, food, travel whilst also paying their basic living costs.  Once they are qualified, they quickly gain their flying hours to enable them to get better paid jobs with better working conditions with other airlines.  This constant churn means that there is no loyalty, trust or engagement.  Staff see Ryanair as a stepping stone to greater things.
  2. Lack of employee benefits or trust: Low pay, no meals, drinks, zero hours contracts means that employees see their roles at Ryanair as jobs and no more.  They trade their time for money, but they are not invested in the organisation.  When people feel part of something, a belonging and gain meaning from their roles, they genuinely want what is best for the organisation.  In low trust, low engagement cultures, self preservation and selfish behaviour ripple throughout.
  3. Non participative solution finding:  The autocratic, top down approach to decision making means that the people best placed to spot issues are not involved in finding solutions. In fact, within Ryanair, people were afraid to speak up and speak out as this would put them in a vulnerable position.  Successful cultures include their people in finding the solutions and they are then more likely to ensure the solutions are embedded.  In Ryanairs culture the people were seen as the problem, not the solution.
  4. Low Psychological safety:  What makes great teams and high performing cultures? Psychological safety, and this was supported in research at google.   When people feel safe, in low blame – high trust organisations, people are able to do their best work.  At Ryanair people felt on edge, under constant scrutiny and under valued at all levels.  The strategy to be lo-cost and no frills may work from a customer point of view, but from a employee perspective the opposite is true.  When people don’t feel safe, they underperform.

The shareholders maybe satisfied with the short term, high profits, low cost approach to business, but can the aggressive leadership style sustain Ryanair for the future.  One thing is for sure, the model is creating the pipeline of talent for the airlines such as Virgin that are getting the people and customer agenda right.