Ethics, Self-Sacrifice, and the Heroes of the Taj Hotel

What compels certain human beings to risk their lives for complete strangers? As animals, self-preservation should be our most paramount concern. Altruism should extend only to one’s biological kin, or at most to an intimate circle of companions with whom there exists a mutually beneficial relationship. Self-interest underpins our actions and our relationships, or so many people believe.

However, this widespread perception that human nature is principally selfish is false. Self-interest and altruism are not mutually exclusively: most human beings tend to balance between the two depending on a range of social, contextual, and ethical dynamics. Furthermore, we overestimate the degree to which biological imperatives drive our decision-making and worldview, while underestimating our cognitive capacity to transcend such origins.
 
Yes, the most basic nature of all living things is to perpetuate their existence. But humans (and to a lesser degree other intelligent animals) have deep mental faculties that grant them empathy, allow them to develop moral and ethical values, and ponder the nature of their existence and how to operate within it.
 
An insightful and moving demonstration of this emerged in the wake of the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008. Although about a dozen locations were targeted in a coordinated assault, the thrust of the attack – and of subsequent media attention – was the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which was brutally besieged by gunman for three days and two nights until a bloody showdown with security forces.

Amidst the horror were little-known incidents of remarkable and unexpected bravery. As NPR reports:
Apparently, something extraordinary had happened during the siege. According to hotel managers, none of the Taj employees had fled the scene to protect themselves during the attack: They all stayed at the hotel to help the guests.
 
“I was told many stories of Taj hotel employees who made sure that every guest they could find was safely ferreted out of the hotel, at grave risk to their own lives,” Zakaria said on his program.
 
There was the story of the kitchen employees who formed a human shield to assist guests who were evacuating, and lost their lives as a result. Of the telephone operators who, after being evacuated, chose to return to the hotel so they could call guests and tell them what to do. Of Karambir Singh Kang, the general manager of the Taj, who worked to save people even after his wife and two sons, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, died in the fire set by the terrorists.
 
Often during a crisis, a single hero or small group of heroes who take action and risk their lives will emerge. But what happened at the Taj was much broader.
 
During the crisis, dozens of workers — waiters and busboys, and room cleaners who knew back exits and paths through the hotel — chose to stay in a building under siege until their customers were safe. They were the very model of ethical, selfless behavior.
What could possibly explain it?
 
Indeed, in such a circumstance most people would probably expect the infamous bystander effect, in which individuals offer no means of help to victims during an emergency situation when other people are present. One would also assume an incidence of mass hysteria, whereby everyone flees for their own safety, perhaps even compromising the well-being of others in the process.
 
There are many examples of self-interested responses to such crises. In many ways, they’re as unfortunate, though unsurprising, as the tragedy itself. But what transpired at the Taj was not only incredibly altruistic, to the point of literal self-sacrifice; it was calm, coordinated, and occurred on a larger collective scale. How often do people hear of such a thing? What could possibly drive such sacrificial behavior on such a large scale?
 
Earlier this month, a study in the Harvard Business Review proposed an answer to that question.
 
The study was done by Rohit Deshpande, a Harvard business professor who researches both business ethics and global branding.
 
About nine months after the attacks on the Taj, Deshpande was in India interviewing senior management of the hotel on a completely different topic, but found that the people he was talking to kept steering the conversation back to the terrorist attacks.
 
“What was interesting about all those interviews with senior management was that they could not explain the behavior of their own employees,” he told me. “They simply couldn’t explain it.”
 
And so Deshpande decided to do his own investigation of the company to see if he might be able to untangle the cause.
 
Last year, Deshpande flew to India to review the company’s HR policies and also do interviews with the hotel staff, everyone from managers to kitchen workers.
 
What he published in the Harvard Business Review is his case study of the company.
Now, because this is a case study and not a double-blind research study, it’s impossible to draw definitive conclusions. But this is what Deshpande thinks:
 
“It perhaps has something to do with the kinds of people that they recruit to become employees at the Taj, and then the manner that they train them and reward them,” he says.
 
So a minor caveat is that the following analysis is not scientifically substantiated. But given the intangibility of sociological phenomena, the methodology and its ensuing conclusions are as sound as can be expected.
 
First, recruitment. In their search to find maids and bellhops, the Taj avoids big cities and instead turns to small towns and semi-urban areas. There the Taj develops relationships with local schools, asking the leaders of those schools to hand-select people who have the qualifications they want.
 
“They don’t look for students who have the highest grades. They’re actually recruiting for personal characteristics,” Deshpande says, “most specifically, respect and empathy.”
 
Taj managers explained to Deshpande that they recruited for traits like empathy because that kind of underlying value is hard to teach. This, he says, is also why recruiters 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.
 
It should be noted that the hotel is owned by the Tata Group, a very old family-owned company which is known for its focus on social justice (two-thirds of its profits go to a charitable trust, according to the article).
 
Even so, this is an extremely unusual practice in most parts of the world, especially as far as business is concerned. Granted, personal characteristics are sometimes a factor for some companies, but their typically sought after for professional purposes – e.g. whatever promotes productivity and efficiency. Things like empathy and compassion may be nice sweeteners, but they’re not the main focus of most businesses (and for that matter, most applicants).
 
So the hotel just happened to be staffed by some of the most ethical and moral members of society. I wonder if the motivation to recruit from smaller communities was based on the idea that such tight-knit societies are, by nature of their intimacy, likelier to have more sociable, empathetic, and cooperative people. To my knowledge, studies have shown mixed results on whether that is true.
 
But the company also refined and built-upon their employees’ pre-existing proclivity for kindness, through a relatively simple but underappreciated way.
 
But Deshpande says there are also practical reasons for this focus on character. The Taj hotel has made its name on customer service, and they are near maniacal about it, treating it almost like a science.
 
For example, managers have mapped the number of interactions that happen between customers and hotel employees in a typical 24-hour stay. There are on average 42, often unsupervised, interactions between employees and guests.
 
Each of these interactions is viewed by the company as an opportunity for employees to delight their customers with their kindness. So everything — everything — about the training and rewards systems set up by the Taj is designed to encourage kindness.
 
Deshpande gives one example. “If 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 that is made.”
 
Rewards range from gifts to job promotions.
 
This system — of immediately rewarding desired behavior — will likely sound familiar to people interested in psychology.
 
It’s by-the-book conditioning, the same kind of conditioning used by B.F. Skinner to train his pigeons.
 
And in his study, Deshpande argues that it is this combination of selection and routinized rewards that explains what happened during those terrible three days when the Taj hotel was under siege.
 
The employees, he argues, were essentially performing the behaviors they were selected and trained to perform. In this case, extreme kindness to customers.
 
The crucial point is that ethical values are, after all, socially imparted. This may seem obvious, but I feel that people tend to undervalue the human capacity for self-improvement in this regard. Virtues aren’t generally considered teachable in any formal sense, but are viewed as the purview of parental rearing and perhaps early childhood education.
 
While both nature and nurture plays a role in defining our behavior and personality – especially during our youngest years – perhaps we can actively cultivate our values through creative and concerted efforts, just as the Taj managers did. This may provide valuable lessons for how society should run its institutions, from schools to prisons.
 
That’s the professor’s conclusion as well, albeit with some disclaimers.
 
And for Deshpande, all of this has much larger implications: For him, what happened at the Taj is proof positive that organizations can create ethical behavior.
 
“I am absolutely convinced that corporations can enable ethical behavior, and I think what happened at the Taj on [Nov. 26, 2008] is a great example,” he says.
 
But Tom Donaldson, professor of business ethics at the Wharton School, says producing ethics isn’t so simple.
 
“If ethics could be engineered by the organization infallibly, we wouldn’t be hearing about so many scandals in church organizations,” he says.
 
It’s not that rewards don’t matter, Donaldson argues. They profoundly influence behavior, he says. But Donaldson wonders if all the training and conditioning done by the Taj can really be said to have produced truly ethical behavior. What would happen, he wonders, if those employees had confronted a different kind of ethical dilemma, one presented by the customers they’d been conditioned to serve?
 
“I’d like to know what a Taj employee would do,” he says, “for example, if one of the guests ended up striking a homeless person, or one of the guests attempted to sexually assault a hotel worker.”
 
It’s hard to condition real ethics, he says.
 
But for Deshpande, in the example of the Taj and the incredible sacrifices of the employees who work there, there is still a clear, and very compelling, lesson.
 
“Corporate design is absolutely critical,” Deshpande says. “For good, and for evil.”
 
All this certainly merits more research. Can ethical behavior be engineered? If so, would it exist on a deeper level, or would it be nothing more than habitual? Could we organize society in such a way as to impart a true sense of ethics to most of its members? Imagine what such a world would look like.
 
As I await more studies and experiments on the subject, I will definitely be certain of one thing: that whatever the source, the ability of human beings to do beautiful things for one another should never been overlooked or taken for granted. Even while some members of our species demonstrate the worst aspects of our nature, there are always others to remind us to have more faith for a better world.

4 comments on “Ethics, Self-Sacrifice, and the Heroes of the Taj Hotel

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