Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What Motivated the Heroic Employees of the Taj Mahal Hotel?


This post was authored along with Vijayaraghavan Pisharody


Image Source: Wikipedia

We have been intrigued by the heroism of the employees of the Taj Mahal Hotel when the hotel was attacked in 2008. What can explain employees of a private, for-profit company making such an extraordinary decision; deciding to put their own lives at risk to protect the lives of others? These people would have been faced with an exceedingly emotional dilemma; should I escape from the building at the first opportunity or risk my life to save the lives of guests? Does my family not have a greater right over my life than my company?

The defining research on this incident has been done by Rohit Deshpande and Anjali Raina. (HBR blog post “The Ordinary Heroes of the Taj” Dec 2011). Their conclusion is that the Taj employees were driven by a sense of “customer centricity”. We believe this conclusion is too narrow. The heroic act, and the underlying factors that drove the employees, cannot be explained with a “customer centricity” explanation alone. (Gurcharan Das’s book ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’ probably helps us better understand what the employees did, specifically Chapter 3 - I Act Because I Must).

The reason we question the ‘customer centricity’ conclusion is because we believe the Taj employees were driven by a sense of ‘doing the right thing’ rather than ‘doing the right thing by customers’.  To illustrate the point, here is an example. The Taj Mahal Hotel and many other hotels, after this incident, do a security scan of all guests. Let us assume that one of the customers objects to being security scanned. What would the customer-centric Taj employee do in this situation? Extending the ‘customer-centric’ argument, the employee should allow the guest to skip the security scan because that is what the customer wants. But there is evidence that employees do not assist guests in skipping security scans. These same employees exercise judgment, even if it means going against the wish of their customers.

If it is not ‘customer centricity’, what else could be the employees’ motivation? We argue that the Taj employees were driven by ‘community-centricity’. By ‘community’, we are referring collectively to employees, customers, investors, regulators and society-at-large. We define community-centricity as the ability of an individual to decide what is ‘right’ for the community as a whole, given a specific context. In one context, what is ‘right’ for the community may be ‘customer-centricity’. But in a different context, the right thing to do may benefit society-at-large but may actually hurt individual customers. There are several examples of this in business, where companies, while doing right by the community, may actually hurt customers. For example, when airline companies require travelers to comply with security checks, it is inconvenient for customers but it helps community as a whole by creating a safer travel environment.

There is evidence from the hiring and training model of the Taj that they look for community-centricity. The defining difference in the type of people the Taj hires - semi-urban rather than metro, mid-ranked colleges rather than top business schools - is that these people usually have a stronger sense of community. In Rohit Deshpande’s TEDx talk, he specifically states that the Taj looks for people who ‘respect their elders’ which we believe is an example of community-centricity. Further, through training and through empowering employees to make decisions, the Taj Hotel seems to be reinforcing the concept of doing the right thing, depending on the context.

The distinction between customer-centricity and community-centricity is important.  Most companies train employees on customer-centricity in isolation, usually using the “customer comes first” mantra. At the same time, companies have an implicit requirement to maximize revenue and profits. This results in a situation where employees ask themselves; “should I put the customer first or should I maximize revenue and profit?” Most times, this leads to skepticism where employees come to wonder if the company only pays lip service to customer centricity.

But the Taj seems to have been able to meld customer centricity, organization culture, ethics, empowerment and the profit motive into a cohesive whole. The Taj seems to be telling its employees …

“Before you joined us, you lived in a community that has imbibed you with a sense of doing the right thing, doing what benefits community as a whole. You are required to continue to carry this sense of the right when you work for us. Since the right decision is contextual, we empower you to judge and decide. Let your community-centric values drive you when making these decisions. And every time you make the right decision in a challenging situation we will recognize it so every employee clearly understands what is expected.”

In our opinion, this is the lesson from the Taj tragedy. 
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