The Heroes of the Taj

An emergency manager I met in Las Vegas recently called my attention to a December Harvard Business Review piece that is worth a look. The article attempts to explain why the employees of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai went to such extraordinary lengths to help protect the guests during the nightmarish 3-day siege of the hotel.

Restaurant and banquet staff rushed people to safe locations such as kitchens and basements. Telephone operators stayed at their posts, alerting guests to lock doors and not step out. Kitchen staff formed human shields to protect guests during evacuation attempts. As many as 11 Taj Mumbai employees—a third of the hotel’s casualties—laid down their lives while helping between 1,200 and 1,500 guests escape.

Interestingly, the authors, Rohit Deshpandé and Anjali Raina, look to the corporate culture of the Taj hotel to explain this behavior. They interviewed the hotel staff and reviewed the company’s HR policies, and came up with a theory of heroism:

We believe that the unusual hiring, training, and incentive systems of the Taj Group—which operates 108 hotels in 12 countries—have combined to create an organizational culture in which employees are willing to do almost anything for guests. This extraordinary customer centricity helped, in a moment of crisis, to turn its employees into a band of ordinary heroes.

It is surely true that the culture of a company—or a family or a city—can encourage (or discourage) heroism. Organizations like the Coast Guard, for example, systematically empower their lowest-level members to use their discretion—and maintain a bias for action.

But in my experience, the heroism of the Taj employees is the norm, not the exception. When disasters happen, people tend to stick to whatever role they were playing before everything fell apart. They feel responsible for fulfilling their duties, even when they are earning pennies (or rupees) per hour.

On May 28, 1977, an explosive fire ripped through the Beverly Hills Supper Club near Cincinnati, killing 165 people. It was, as the Cincinnati Enquirer later described it, “a night of horror and heroism, of unspeakable carnage and unshakeable courage.” Sociologists Norris Johnson and William Feinberg later conducted an analysis of the behavior of everyone involved, and, as I describe in The Unthinkable, they found a remarkable pattern—that should sound familiar to the survivors from the Taj:

As word of the fire slowly spread, people reacted like actors in play, each according to role. Servers warned their tables to leave. Hostesses evacuated people that they had seated, but bypassed other sections. Cooks and busboys, perhaps accustomed to physical work, rushed to fight the fire. In general, male employees were slightly more likely to help than female employees, maybe because society expects women to be saved and men to do the saving. Age mattered too. The younger cocktail waitresses seemed more confused. But the banquet waitresses, who tended to be older, were calm and reassuring.

But this role-playing works both ways. Employees are more likely to become rescuers, and customers are more likely to, well, sit back and watch:

And what of the guests? Most remained guests to the end. Some even continued celebrating, in defiance of the smoke seeping into the room. One man ordered a rum and Coke to go. When the first reporter arrived at the fire, he saw guests sipping their cocktails in the driveway, laughing about whether they would get to leave without paying their bills.

An estimated 60 percent of the employees tried to help in some way—either by directing guests to safety or fighting the fire. By comparison, only 17 percent of the guests helped. But even among the guests, identity influenced behavior. The doctors who had been dining at the club acted as doctors, administering CPR and dressing wounds on the grounds of the club like battlefield medics. Nurses did the same thing. There was even one hospital administrator there who—naturally—began to organize the doctors and the nurses.

Does this mean we shouldn’t celebrate the employees of the Taj? No, by all means, we should, and I am so glad the authors interviewed the employees and collected their stories.

But if we recognize that this kind of behavior is predictable and not exceptional, then perhaps we can move the dial one notch further—beyond customer-centric HR policies. For example, how can we train employees so that their urge to help the guests will be even more productive—and less deadly? Can we train them to expect guests to become passive—and override that instinct with aggressive commands (as well-trained flight attendants have learned to do in aviation disasters)? What happens if we anticipate heroism (or at least decency), and work backwards from there?