26/11, Taj Terror Attack: One mass case study in Harvard Psychology department

On November 26, 2008, one of the most audacious attacks on India’s sovereignty took place. Ten terrorists carried out 12 different across the city. That tragic day world witnessed extraordinary act of bravery and resilience across the city. While Indian commandos and forces were in action from outside the Taj hotel, very few knew what was happening inside the hotel during that crucial time.
While all the employees were very well aware about exit points but Not ONE Taj employee abandoned the hotel and ran right through the attack.
Instead, they helped guests escape from the hotel. As a matter of fact, some of them lost their lives in the process.
This really confounded the psychologists. Their study revealed some interesting facts about the hiring system of Taj Group:
  • The Taj did not recruit from big cities, they recruited from smaller cities where traditional culture still holds strong.
  • They did not recruit toppers; they spoke to schoolmasters to find out who were most respectful of their parents, elders, teachers and others.
  • They taught their employees to be ambassadors of their guests to the organization not ambassadors of the company to their guests.

The Indian army too does not recruit toppers; they recruit people through intensive psychological testing, perhaps that are why they have one of the most effective govt. organizations in the country.

The Business Beyond Excellence

It certainty is an extraordinary story of extraordinary people; probably another chapter in management books.
But from a business perspective, as I see it clearly highlights excellence in two areas -  Customer Focus and Individual Leadership (Personal Excellence). How did it work in The Taj?

The Value Driven Recruitment

The Taj Group’s unique recruiting appaorach helps to identify right people. People who have high potential to perform and can be easliy trained to be customer-centric. Unlike other companies that recruit mainly from India’s metropolitan areas.

Contrary to popular perception, the Taj Group doesn’t scout for the best English speakers or Math wizards; it will even recruit would-be dropouts. Its recruiters look for three character traits:
  • Respect for elders (how does he treat his teachers?)
  • Cheerfulness (does she perceive life positively even in adversity?) and
  • Neediness (how badly does his family need the income from a job?)
It is clearly evident that Taj group focuses more on Character than Aptitude while recruiting people. 

Customer Orientation

As they said, The Taj taught their employees to be the ambassadors of their guests to the organization not ambassadors of the company to their guests.
Most hotel chains train frontline employees for 12 months, on average, but the Taj Group insists on an 18-month program. Managers, too, go through 18 months of classroom and on-the-job operations training. For instance, trainee managers will spend a fortnight focusing on service in the Taj Group’s training restaurant and the next 15 days working hands-on in a hotel restaurant.

Recognition as Reward

Taj Group’s rewards system is based on the belief that happy employees lead to happy customers. One way of ensuring that outcome, the organization believes, is to show that it values the efforts of both front line and heart-of-the house employees by thanking them personally.
In 2001 the Taj Group created a Special Thanks and Recognition System (STARS) that links customer delight to employee rewards. According to independent experts, the Taj Group’s service standards and customer-­retention rates rose after it launched the STARS program.
We have heard of many situational leadership examples in the past. As Rohit Deshpande says, "It was a clear example of leadership from below. Every one in the staff waiters, managers, chefs etc. was motivated by one selfless thought – ‘safety of guests first’."
Rohit gives another account of December 26, 2004 in his case study. When tsunami rippled across the Indian Ocean, wreaking havoc on coastal populations from Indonesia to India, Among those affected was the island nation of the Maldives, where tidal waves devastated several resort hotels, including two belonging to the Taj Group: the Taj Exotica and the Taj Coral Reef.

Individual Leadership

As the case study highlights that the Taj Group’s recruitment, training, and recognition systems have together created an extraordinary service culture.
However we may still wonder if the response of the Taj Mumbai’s employees to 26/11 was unique. As a true captain of the ship they deiced to be the last one to leave the ship.  Even after taking guests out of hotel they came back in again and rescued more guests.
This is something really amazing.


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