Fifth anniversary of 26/11: The Ordinary Heroes of the Taj

rohit deshpandeVivek Kaul  
Rohit Deshpandé is Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School, where he currently teaches in the Owner/President Management Program and in other executive education offerings. Deshpande is the co-author(along with Anjali Raina) of the Harvard Business Review article The Ordinary Heroes of the Taj. He has also written a case study titled Terror at the Taj Bombay
On the fifth anniversary of 26/11, Deshpande speaks to Firstpost on the heroic behaviour of the employees of Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, which was occupied by terrorists for three days. “There was one person who was stuck at the Taj and who told this amazing story about a whole bunch of guests being surrounded by a group Taj employees, who calmed them. They surrounded them to make sure that they did not run all over the place and get into harm’s way. They later learned that these were interns, not even regular employees, who were taking care of guests,” says Deshpande.  
Give us some background how did the employees of Taj react on the night of 26/11?
The story is that the staff at the Taj reacted uniformly, and that same way was to protect the guest’s safety and to get the guests out of the hotel. Both actions came at the expense of the staff’s own safety. Several of them were wounded and a number of them were killed in the process of doing this.
Were they trained for doing this?
Staff members had no training in security measures. I interviewed people in the kitchen staff. The kitchen took the heaviest casualty. The reason for this was because guests could be taken out on to the road behind Taj through the the back passages from the kitchen galleys. So they started taking hundreds of guests out from the back of the kitchen. The terrorists got to know of this. There was a lot of media attention at that time and somehow they were signalled to this. They went across to the kitchen. The chefs formed a human barrier around the guests and took the bullets. A number of chefs were killed including the number two to Executive Chef Oberoi. There were a number of chefs who were killed and who had been working only for two or three years. Young chefs. These were people who had no training in security measures. And they were instinctively taking care of the guests, and taking them to safety.
That was very brave of them…
One of the people that I interviewed was the vice chairman of Indian Hotels(the company that runs Taj Hotels). He said, these are people who know all the back exits. And the natural human instinct, I am paraphrasing what he said, is to flee. So this is a very curious behaviour. The employees of the Taj Hotel chose not to flee but to stay and help guests out. And then comeback to help more guests out. Many of these people are the sole bread winners in the family. And yet they were doing this. This is counter-intuitive. There is decades of social psychology research that basically says that when there is a flight or flee response, and you are not trained to fight, so you flee.
When you started looking into the reasons, why do you think the staff reacted the way it did, inspite of the fact that they were not trained for it?
So here is the curious story. I asked this question to the senior management, when I was doing these interviews. And they did not know the answer. They could not understand it. Ratan Tata was one of the people that I interviewed. He could not understand it. Raymond Bickson who is the CEO of the company, he could not understand it. So, senior managers couldn’t figure it out. And I asked the employees. I asked why didn’t you run away. And people gave me all kinds of explanations. The General Manager of the hotel, Karambir Kang said, I come from a military family. When I took up this job as the General Manager of the hotel, my father always said remember that you are like the captain of the ship, you are the last one out. And that’s how I felt, I am the last one out.
He stayed on the ship despite what was happening to his own family. There were other people who said, they had more important things to do and so they stayed.
So basically people did what they did and they probably didn’t have an explanation…
It seems somehow what they did was instinctive. They didn’t really have an explanation for it. And we know for sure that they were not trained. But they were independently doing the same thing in different parts of the hotel. The same thing in the general part of it was taking care of the guests but it would translate into different things like calming guests, staying calm themselves, providing food and drink to people through the night. Remember, the attack at the Taj lasted three times longer than it did anywhere else. So actually it is interesting that the fatalities were not much much higher because it lasted three times as long.
So the kitchen etc were functioning?
They were functioning. There were banquet rooms that were sealed off, but they were providing sustenance to the guests in complete darkness. That was the curious part that the employees themselves could not explain.
So what is your explanation?
There is no simple explanation for it. Its a very very complex thing. In the Harvard Business Review(HBR) article that Anjali Raina and I wrote, we looked at the human resource policies, the kinds of people they recruit. How they train them. How they reward them. Undoubtedly that has something to do with it. Raymond Bicskon in his interview said, we hire nice people. You can train anybody to be good at housekeeping, but you can’t train them to be nice.
How do you hire nice people?
We get a little bit of that in the HBR article. There policies tend to be different from other companies. They go to small towns rather than large cities to recruit. This is actually counter intuitive because if you are trying to do recruit an employee who has to do a lot of guest interaction, you want someone who is cosmopolitan, can speak English fluently, can work with international clientèle, etc. You will think that you are more likely to find a person like that in big cities like Mumbai rather than small places like Nashik. They do the opposite. I think that is a part of it. I don’t think they were thinking that would lead them to be prepared for an attack like this. But they were thinking how can they have people who are ambassadors for their guests rather than an ambassador for their brand.
Why did you write only about the Taj and not the Oberoi as well?
There is no deep story to it. The background is that I was actually writing a branding case on Taj Hotels, in the spring of 2009. It was around the time Indian Hotels, had made this major strategic initiative to expand beyond the Taj line of hotels and add Vivanta, Gateway and Ginger brands. To my knowledge there is no other hotel chain in India that actually covers those market segments. So why were they doing this? I came to do that case. Every single interview that I did, the person that interviewed mentioned 26/11.
Why did that happen?
The context of mentioning that was a branding issue. We don’t know whether our brand has been forever besmirched by the tragedy. That people from here on will always associate the Taj with terrorism. The image of the Taj Palace Mumbai will always be an image coloured by smoke rising from the dome. These were the things that people I interviewed said. First, I was going to put that in the opening paragraph of the case but it did not make sense for a branding architecture case, which had nothing to do with. I asked if I could comeback and do a case that had to do with crisis management and brand resurgence. How do you bring your flagship brand back after the crisis? That was the story for the second case. The case was on the Taj. It was not a comparative case on the Indian hotel industry. It was a very simple case which had some marketing and branding angle to it and was focused on the Taj.
The reason for asking the question was very simple. After reading your case the first thought that came to my mind was how had the employees of the Oberoi reacted.
How did they react?
I don’t know.
I don’t know the answer because I don’t have the data. But here is the analytical point. When I teach this case, one of the learning points in the case is the meaning and management of culture. So normally when we teach the concept of culture in the MBA programme, our students are thinking of culture as in corporate culture. Here there are two corporate cultures. There is the Taj corporate culture and there is the Tata corporate culture. So automatically there is a nuance. Then there is the industry culture, which is the hospitality industry, under which will come the Oberoi and a bunch of other competitive hotels. Then there is national culture which has to do with values. Like one of the things that you know from this is atithi devo bhava, which is not a Taj thing. It is an Indian thing.
What are you trying to suggest?
If one thinks of a cultural explanation for the behaviour of the staff at Taj on the night of 26/11, it could be explained by a multiple culture interaction. If it was the hospitality culture that was dominant, one would expect the same thing to have happened at the Oberoi. If it was the Taj culture that was dominant one would expect this not to have happened at the Oberoi. If it was the Tata culture that was dominant one would have expected this to happen if Tata Tea, Tata Motors or TCS had had a crisis of similar proportion. I don’t have data for this but this is a part of our discussion in class, where students are actually trying to grapple with this notion and their learning expands beyond just going to the immediate i.e. what happened in that hotel. For us the learning is not about what happened in that hotel, but is this actually learnable, scalable and generalisable, outside of that hotel. That’s the classroom learning.
When you discuss this case, what kind of explanations people come up with for the behaviour of the Taj employees?
One particular explanation is that this is a one off that could only have happened at that particular hotel. It has to do with the 105 year old history of the Taj Palace hotel in Mumbai and the positive memories especially people in Mumbai associate with it. So, it couldn’t have happened anywhere else. It wouldn’t happen here, at the Taj Land’s End (where the interview took place) for instance. That’s one explanation.
There are explanations that say that this is all about India. It couldn’t have happened outside of India. There is something about the Indian culture that explains it. To some people its regional culture in South Asia or Asia in general and one would not expect this in the West. Then there are people who say this is trainable. This is coachable. This is to do with how you recruit people, and how you train and reward them. So there is a very very wide range of explanations.
You also briefly talked about the Taj brand being tainted with terrorism. How was that overcome?
One part of our discussion that we have during the case study is how do you get guests to comeback to the hotel, after a tragedy like this? This goes back to the issue of the brand being connected with terrorism and therefore people not wanting to go there because they were scared. Taj did an incredible job of reassuring people. If you recall there advertising campaign, they anthropomorphised the building and made it speak in the ad. It basically said, I have withstood generations and seen ups and downs of Indian history and I will stand strong. It was a defiant message, but it was as if the building was speaking. It struck a chord with people, to the point that when the Taj reopened, there were local people who went and lived there. This is an amazing story of resurgence. Also, it is worth remembering that this is happening at the nadir, the low point of the global financial crisis. Hospitality was one of the industries that was impacted the most dramatically. That means what? Luxury hotels occupancy rates were at an all time low, and then this thing happens. This could have wiped out the Taj brand completely. The fact that they rebounded and rebounded in such an amazing way, I think is a testimony to people’s connections with that company, with the hotel, with the staff and what they did in terms of actions and so on.
Anything else that you would like to add?
The other part of the story that comes out here is the Tata story that goes beyond the Taj. The Tata group is known for taking care of its employees. So there is a loyalty that Tata employees have towards their company and towards the Tata group. People that I was interviewing said that they were working for a higher purpose. And after the 26/11 you might know that the Tatas set up a fund to pay the medical expenses of those affected. What is interesting is that the fund covered not only the medical expenses of the Taj employees but everybody and anybody who was affected. This means that they were paying the medical expenses of not only the people who were at the railway station but presumably other people who were Oberoi employees. And that’s just mind boggling.
The interview originally appeared on on November 26, 2013

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)