With Just 5 Words, Delta’s CEO Taught a Major Lesson in Emotional Intelligence

It starts with praising your people, but you've also got to back it up.

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Courtesy of Cweyer

For the past few years, Delta airlines has consistently ranked as “best in class” when it comes to U.S. airlines. And it’s no surprise if you’ve heard the company’s most recent news:

Delta announced that it’s paying employees $1.6 billion in bonuses due to the company’s strong performance in 2019. That means eligible employees will each receive a bonus equal to about 16.6% of their annual salary, or an additional two months’ pay. 

While the profit payout for 2019 is a new record for Delta, it isn’t new. According to a spokesperson, it’s the sixth year in a row Delta has paid out more than $1 billion in bonuses.

But if a hefty paycheck next month wasn’t enough to make Delta employees swoon, their CEO’s recent comments surely will be.

In response to a LinkedIn post calling him a rock star, Delta CEO Ed Bastian responded with two short sentences:

“Appreciate the shout out…but Delta would be nothing without our 90,000 people. They deserve all the credit.”

They deserve all the credit.

With these five words, and the actions that back them up, Bastian teaches some brilliant lessons in emotional intelligence–the ability to understand and manage emotions, both your own and those of others.

Let’s break down three of them:

Praise your people.

When Bastian read the LinkedIn post praising him, it would be easy to simply say thank you, or to reciprocate kind words to the person praising him.

But instead, Bastian deflected the praise to his people. In doing so, he puts the spotlight on them. He fills a basic need–employees’ need to feel appreciated. And he provides motivation as a byproduct.

As the leader of a team, it feels good when others praise you. But emotional intelligence will help you to see these moments as opportunities to spread that good feeling to others. Doing so will strengthen the bond of the team and bring out the best in your people.

Reward your people.

As great as it is to receive kind words, praise and commendation don’t pay the bills.

That’s why the bonus program Delta has put into place is so important. Bastian says investors have challenged the decision to hand out such generous bonuses, if at all. After all, wouldn’t employees appreciate an extra month salary well enough?

But Bastian has refused to budge, and Delta employees have rewarded that decision with their performance. According to the Wall Street Journal, Delta ranked first overall among U.S. airlines in various categories, and won the title as America’s top airline.

Is your business performing well? Consider giving your employees not just a bonus, but a generous one. 

Empower your people.

It may seem subtle, but there’s a key lesson in how Delta frames its bonus program. By sharing a percentage of profits directly with employees, Bastian sends a strong message to his people:

You are in control.

By empowering his people, Bastian helps to create a culture where employees are rewarded for offering suggestions and solving problems. And that culture produces real-world results: For example, fellow Inc. columnist Bill Murphy Jr. wrote a great piece detailing how Delta adopted an employee suggestion to help ensure planes take off on time.

Actions like these illustrate how profit-sharing can motivate employees to be more proactive and motivated in helping the business to excel. Not to mention that according to workplace review site Glassdoor, 87 percent of employees would recommend working at Delta to a friend, and Bastian enjoys an 89 percent approval rate.

“They deserve all the credit.”

Five simple words, but they illustrate three powerful lessons:

Praise your people. Reward your people. Empower your people.

Because the old adage is true: If you take care of your people, they’ll take care of your customers.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on

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