Finding The Silver Rainbow In Adversity

Dear Reader,

When conflict occurs - even the worst kind - there is always to be found a silver rainbow: some individuals or groups appear, sometimes from nowhere, to create a counter-balance to the evil being perpetrated. We have heard many stories of rank bravery in the World Wars as well as in western civilian disasters such as 9/11 and 7/7. And many other occasions.

For my part, I remember also the attack on the Taj hotel at Mumbai in 2008, which is not often talked about in the West. The following is a rendition of some of what happened there, in 2008.

On November 26, terrorists launched a series of simultaneous attacks on various places at Mumbai including the prestigious Taj hotel. The exemplary courage and dedication that so many showcased in those fateful days is now a Harvard Business School (HBS) case study.

The multimedia case study ‘Terror at the Taj Bombay: Customer-Centric Leadership’ by HBS professor Rohit Deshpande documents “the bravery and resourcefulness shown by rank-and-file employees” during the attack. The study focuses on the staff’s selfless service for its customers and how they went beyond their call of duty to save lives.

The objective of the study is, “why did the Taj employees stay at their posts (during the attacks), jeopardising their safety in order to save hotel guests and how can that level of loyalty and dedication be replicated elsewhere”.

For two nights and three days, the Taj was under siege, held by terrorists with automatic weapons. Some people were taken hostage, some were killed, and the famous dome of the hotel was set on fire.

The siege of the Taj quickly became an international story. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who grew up in Mumbai recollected the horror of the attacks. He points to a silver lining: the behavior of the employees at the Taj.

According to hotel managers, none of the Taj employees fled the scene to protect themselves during the attack, They all stayed back to help the guests.

The kitchen employees formed a human shield to assist guests who were being evacuated, and some lost their lives as a result.

The telephone operators who, after being evacuated, chose to return to the hotel so they could call guests and tell them what to do.

Karambir Singh Kang, the general manager of the Taj, who worked to save people after the safety of his wife and two sons were secured, died in the fire set by the terrorists.

It is o
ften observed that, during a crisis, a single hero or small group of heroes will emerge who take action and risk their lives. But what happened at the Taj was much broader.

During the crisis, dozens of workers, waiters, and room cleaners who knew back exits and paths through the hotel, chose to stay in the building under siege until their customers were safe. They were the very model of ethical, selfless behavior.

What could be the reason for such selfless behavior? Rohit Deshpande later visited the Taj to interview staff for some other case study, but in conversation the topic circled around the terrorist attack. It was then Rohit decided to interview and take up a broader study of the staff’s behavior at that time, and from this investigation, the background to the staff's attitude during that siege emerged.

"It perhaps has something to do with the kind of people that they recruit to become employees at the Taj, and then the manner that they train them and reward them,” he says. First, the method of Taj recruitment avoids big cities and instead turns to small towns and semi-urban areas. There the Taj develops relationships with the local schools and hand-selects people who have the qualifications they want. They don’t look for students who have the highest grades. They recruit for personal characteristics, most specifically respect and empathy.

They avoid hiring managers for the hotel from the top business schools in India. They deliberately go to second-tier business schools, on the theory that the people there will be less motivated by money.

And this strategy, as Deshpande points out, is highly unusual in India. How often do we see institutions choosing candidates with empathy rather than high qualifications. It’s almost near to zero.

The Taj is owned by the Tata group, which for the past hundred years has been run by an extremely religious family that is interested in social justice. The company typically channels about two-thirds of its profits into a charitable trust. and there is a wonderful reward system set up to encourage kindness in the staff.

If any guests say something or write something very complimentary about an employee, within 48 hours of the recording of that compliment, there is some sort of reward on the way for the staff.

And in his study, Deshpande emphasises that it is this combination of selection and routinised rewards system that explains what happened during those terrible three days when the Taj hotel was under siege.

The employees were essentially performing the behaviors they were selected and trained to perform: in this case, extreme kindness to customers. The staff at the Taj were a rare group of dedicated employees. The hotel reception was re-opened in less than a month after the attacks.

They lost their loved ones, their colleagues; some lost their own lives. But when an employee has an absolute love for his job and loyalty for the company he or she works in, these rare cases of extraordinary participation can be seen.

What happened at the Taj appears to be a very suitable case study for the Harvard Business School.

The above has been extracted from an article published here. 

Thank you for reading this.


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