Airport image

I was recently invited to speak about organizational culture leadership at an annual convening of customer service leaders of the Worldwide Airline Customer Relations Association (WACRA) in Helsinki, Finland. I was ecstatic about this invitation because it not only allowed me to speak about a topic I love, but it also provided an opportunity to see my family in my native Finland.

For some 27 years I’ve been an expatriate Finn who travels back to the country of my birth once or twice a year. I’ve traveled on my own through that airport since I was 13 years old. But to my absolute surprise, this time I got lost at the Helsinki airport upon arrival! This is embarrassing because it should be impossible. So, how is it possible that I got lost there? And more importantly, why does it matter?

It matters because it is such a great example of how our biases, often based on assumptions and habitual behaviors, can override even our best directions and guidance efforts. Maybe this story will remind you of how some changes at your workplace didn’t go exactly as planned…

For years, I’ve flown from Seattle (or SEA in airline code) to Helsinki (or HEL) on Delta via Amsterdam (AMS), where I go through the EU’s passport and customs routine. The terminal where Delta’s partner airline, KLM arrives in Helsinki from AMS is so familiar to me that I believe I could walk through it in my sleep. This route has been burned into my brain over the years.

In August, however, as a guest speaker of the conference hosted by Finnair, I was flown by Finnair via Chicago, and arrived to a different terminal in Helsinki. Everything went just dandy until I got to the passport check. I showed my US passport and they wanted to see my Finnish/EU passport. Lucky me, I had both with me! In AMS they never ask for my Finnish passport. My passport was stamped and I was on my way to pick up my luggage… and that’s when I got lost.

I got lost because I was blindly confident in myself as an expert in arriving “home.” I believed, “I know this.”

Briskly, I began trekking across the airport towards the familiar baggage claim in the Delta/KLM terminal without realizing that – duh – my luggage would, of course, be delivered to a baggage claim in the terminal where I had just landed. Half way through to the other terminal it hit me: “This just doesn’t make sense! Why would my baggage be slugged across the airport for baggage claim?” And where were the rest of the travelers from my flight? For the life of me, I couldn’t recognize any signs for baggage claim either. Anywhere.

Circling in the middle of the airport my anxiety levels were rising, and I found myself increasingly embarrassed. “Finland is a country of engineers, there must be a straight forward route out,” I concluded, turned around and headed back towards the passport check. Eventually, I found my luggage. As I walked through the customs into the arrivals hall, my mom and dad looked relieved. They had expected me amongst the first arrivals.

So, what had just happened? The same thing that happens to people in organizations – the “travelers” of workplaces. As we travel through our daily journeys, the brain recognizes what is familiar and learns for the sake of efficiency. It creates shortcuts to save energy, and therefore, our daily routines like commuting or brushing our teeth become so habitual that we don’t spend much brain energy thinking about them.

The overpowering force of habit can, however, make us blind to what’s really going on in the environment. As our confidence increases, so does potential for false conclusions.

In reality, the airport in Helsinki was full of signs to direct people – but I failed to see them because I assumed I knew.

The signage at the Helsinki airport is toned down – just like the way we Finns communicate. The airport uses simplified signs, such as a stylized image of a suitcase without written words like “baggage”, and they are sparsely but strategically located to guide people. I didn’t even see this culture-specific way of communicating because I assumed I knew. Goodness sakes, I’m Finnish!

All this is to say, that while there are some great benefits for the brain to run on an automatic pilot at times, it pays to understand that when you become too comfortable and overly confident, your awareness might be reduced and compromised.

In business this can have drastic consequences. If you’re not paying attention to the changes in your environment, the realization that you’ve “missed the boat,” or lost your way, might come too late.

So, don’t get too comfortable on auto-pilot.

Happy travels, everyone!

Kristiina works as a leadership coach for executives, specializing on high performance cultures. She is passionate about transforming workplaces through integrating culture data into strategic leadership. With her background in international coaching and training, she also teaches international business and leadership courses as an adjunct professor at University of Washington (UW) and Bellevue College. Kristiina has authored two books, and serves as an Honorary Consul for Finland and on the Boards of the Rainier Club, Nordic Heritage Museum and Scandinavian Studies Program at UW. More about Kristiina at kristiinahiukka.com and newlegendsnow.com.