26.11 Mumbai and Harvard


 Recently, I chanced upon a report about Harvard Professor Rohit Deshpande’s research on what empowered the exceptional display of heroism by the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel staff during the 26/11 terrorist attacks inMumbai,Indiathree years back. Of incredible tales of hotel staff forming human shields to protect guests, some of them losing their own lives in the process.

Prof. Deshpande has found three HR practices relating to recruitment, training and staff recognition to which he ascribes the many uncommon acts of employee valour. But as I reflect on the report, I sense that the findings could be mere tip of the iceberg. Has the research truly been able to drill down to the reasons behind this clearly contradictory conception of human behaviour?

As I reflect some more, I wonder if it all comes down to how organisations think and act, how they relate to their employees. To most of us, an efficient organization is all about “command and control”, a heritage harking back to the industrial revolution. As organisations have continued to ramp up efficiencies, technology has taken centre stage with jobs getting more segmented and even expendable. Low qualification jobs have created disqualified humans. And the attendant social costs of a mentally dissatisfied and spiritually impoverished population are visible all over.

Other symptoms are there to see. Of organisations losing their life blood of core personnel and entrepreneurial energy.  As they try to meet future challenges by using a    “fix-it back to how it was” mindset. A mindset of a command and control Management which has become increasingly misaligned with today’s environment and technology evolution.

And how does all this look like at a macro level? The old economy “brick and mortar” structure which served us well over the last century in terms of standardisation, assembly line productivity, modular approach and cloned processes is in crisis. A crisis fuelled by uncertainty and unpredictability. Of an environment that is getting increasingly disconnected from the past, difficult to comprehend.

So I have this vision. A vision born of hope and positivity. Of organisations who believe in the strategy of the moment. Of a culture where creativity and flexibility replace detailed planning and control. Of the realisation that constant internal regeneration is necessary to keep up with rapid changes and discontinuity. Of managers with conviction that problems are but symptoms of needed change and not something that has “broken” and needs repair. Of leaders who know that things would never get back to the way they used to be but would change faster and faster.

So how can this vision be achieved? By dispensing with rigid job and task definitions and replacing these with strategic “positions” aligned to objectives and results. By empowering people to create their very own evolving job definition, pulsating with a changing environment. As gas fills up vacuum, as the cytoplasm fills up a living cell. And so no two job descriptions would be alike just as no two personnel are alike in terms of their thinking, values and beliefs they bring to the table.

So could this be the way we, the people, reclaim back the “heart of work” from clicking, repetitive technology? As we develop a messianic vision of our role and transform the organisational ethos to say that if one does not take initiatives, one simply does not have a job.

I believe in some unique way, the management of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai has been able to instill the above radical context of “work” into its employees. And have created a shared deep commitment to service and humanity. But has this been achieved through training and personnel development as the Harvard research opines? Or has it come from a moral energy at the core of the organisation consciousness? From a “caring and serving” value system flowing from the top and percolating through all levels? From sustaining a heritage that empowers people to “get out of their boxes” to creatively enrich, enlarge and connect?

No doubt, the world would be waiting to learn………………

In Learning……………………….

Shakti Ghosal

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4 thoughts on “26.11 Mumbai and Harvard

  1. Dear Shakti,

    Your right profile is fetching. The article is bolognney.

    In a life threatening situation the instinct is survival. The then staff in the boxed situation ended up in doing what appeared best for survival.

    The complete set of parameters ie exit cut off or not , fire below or above ; lifts working/not and a100 other such determine the behaviour of a group of people in stress situations.

    Even the army man fires to kill the enemy otherwise be shot by his own.

    All else is semantics.
    Luv Sand

    • Dear Sanwal,

      When you put it in the way you have, it does make me think. Maybe you are right partly.

      But most of the tales emanated from guests who had been helped out by Taj staff during the attack and lived to tell their story.So clearly they are true and not concocted. I would tend to believe that staff, particularly in the kitchen and other service areas, could have made a run for it if they had chosen to.Just like what we witnessed happening in the AMRI hospital fire recently. But what made the staff remain back at their stations? Definitely not fear of supervision for it clearly was a case of personal safety and survival and no one could have directed them to do otherwise. So what were these motivators?

      My blog of course attempted to use the incident to delve into and make sense of the Harvard research and findings. Not sure to what extent it could do that…..

      Do continue commenting, They are not only refreshing but allow for reflection and insight.

      Cheers

      Shakti

  2. Hi Tomi,

    Thank you for your comment. I can profess to have as much or as little informationon of the very tragic AMRI incident, largely imbibed through TV.

    What I believe is that the actions of the people you term as slum- humans, came from the very natural human “space” of sharing and caring relating to fellow humans in distress. Each one of us is born with this deep down positive ethos which could be ascribed to a “survival of the species” instinct.But I guess our subsequent socialisation and competitive pressures in today’s socio-economic environment subsume this inner instinct for most of us. I believe the so called slum- humans face this pressure much less and hence may behave much naturally than most of us.They have shown their intrinsic superiority and we need to heartily acknowledge that.

    Regards

    Shakti

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