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Build a culture of everyday heroes

September 19, 2012
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It’s a story we hear too often in our world – “terrorists attack.” In 2008, in India, in a coordinated attack across a dozen locations, most of them tourist enclaves like the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, the unthinkable happened. The demands of the terrorists doesn’t matter, they chose the wrong path. What matters is the behavior of the employees at the Taj Mahal and what they did to ensure the safety of their guests during the 3-days when armed gunmen tried to control the hotel.

None of the employees at the Taj Mahal fled the hotel during the siege; none, even though they knew the secret routes out of the hotel. Interviews done by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria revealed that employees searched the hotel, in a game of cat-and-mouse with the patrolling terrorists, to get guests to safety. Some employees even returned to the hotel after being evacuated. Kitchen employees made a human shield to block exiting guests; some were killed in this act of heroism. Amazing stories. Thirty-one people died in the attack; 11 were Taj Mahal employees. Reports suggest that they saved 1200-1500 guests.hero-300.jpg

Three weeks before the two year anniversary President Obama and his wife stayed at the iconic hotel. After the Taj attacks in Mumbai, Tata Group (Taj’s parent company) guaranteed lifelong education and financial support for families of victims of the terrorist activity.

On the anniversary of the attacks, National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed Dr. Rohit Deshpande, a business professor at Harvard who sought to understand the behavior of the Taj Hahal employees (listen to the All Things Considered interview on the NPR Website). Dr. Deshpande cites the recruitment and training of employees for traits like empathy which may have lead to these heroic actions.

However, what impressed me from his Harvard Business Review article about the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was management’s exemplary use of behavioral science (what we call Organizational Behavior Management or OBM) to create world-class positive customer interactions. Dr. Dishpande suggested that the identification and reinforcement of customer-centric behaviors created an organizational culture that may have led employees to focus on their guests in the face of personal calamity.

In their OBM system, the Taj customer-centric program pinpointed important customer interaction behaviors. Managers and employees mapped the typical interactions that occur between employees and guests. They came up with 42 which served as the basis for their training program. This type of Performance-Based Instruction is what behavioral scientists such as Dale Brethower have been teaching us for years.

 The managers at the Taj Mahal then set up a system of reinforcement to promote these positive customer interactions. In a system they call STARS, a team reviews customer complements and deliver “points” to employees involved in the interaction within 48 hours. Points can then result in trinkets, trophies, and promotions. Additionally, employees debrief with managers weekly to get individualized feedback on recent customer interactions and work on suggestions for behaviors to attempt in the future. Probably the most cost-effective method of reinforcement used by the management of the Taj are expressions of gratitude – simple “thank you’s.”

Employees are also assured that they will never be punished for putting the customer’s needs in front of the company’s; instead all levels of leadership will support them. Thus, employees are reinforced for behaviors that support customer needs and these behaviors go beyond the 42 original critical incidents and lead to a high level of employee initiative overall (which the popular business press calls “empowerment” or “engagement”).

The results are impressive. Taj hotel’s website is full of Guest compliments as is TripAdvisor.com comment sections dedicated to their hotels. The Tata Group (Taj’s parent company) grew to a value of 15 billion, an increase of 36% in the past year, during a worldwide recession. Forbes magazine cited the Tata Group as the 11th in its annual survey of the world’s most reputable companies in 2009. (At #10 was Singapore Airlines which I flew a couple years ago. I was so impressed with the service that I went online and provided a compliment. Little did I know that, like Taj employees, the flight attendants with Singapore Airlines recieved rewards for my comments.)

The Taj Group of hotels seems to be adept at creating cultures of heroism. Four years prior to the Mumbai attacks, the devastating Tsunami of 2004 claimed over 150,000 lives. Two Taj hotels on the island nation of Maldives were destroyed by the waves. Reports described Taj employees staying in harm’s way to rush guests to safety. These employees then volunteered to stay, even when their own lives were in disarray, and set up shelters and food for guests and island residents affected by the Tsunami.

In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Deshpande reflected on the Taj hotels case: “And it’s not like they were doing just what they were trained for, they were going beyond and being extremely smart—with a presence of mind even during the crisis.” There was nothing in employee handbooks or policies that dictated what they were to do during a crisis or attack. In my mind this is a pretty extreme example of “going above and beyond the call of duty.”

But then again I consider what makes a great safety program within a company. It’s a culture that promotes the smaller acts of heroism that happen every day in the workplace.

These small acts of heroism occur when a worker gives feedback to a peer when risks are taken, when a worker approaches a supervisor or manager concerned about operational decisions that may negatively affect safety, when a worker takes a moment to talk about the importance of a safety procedure during a startup meeting, when a group of workers decide to shut down an operation because they feel their safety or the safety of others may be compromised, when a worker takes on a new hire to mentor safe performance…

The full list of heroic acts cannot be compiled because it is relentlessly being added to by Safety Heroes.

So what do companies who have fostered great safety programs do to promote small acts of heroism? They give permission to employees to Actively Care.

But giving permission is not just a pronouncement, it is a systematic set of tactics that clarify and reinforce initiative. Consider what Taj Hotels did: Pinpointed critical customer interactions where incidents occur; provided extra training in these critical areas; set up a system of feedback that promoted situation-based problem solving and prompted future behaviors; and used reinforcement to increase initiative-taking behaviors while ensuring that no employee would be punished for putting a customer’s needs first.

Let’s translate these best practices into Safety strategy:

Pinpoint critical moments where employees at all levels can be vigilant and alert each other when hazards are present and risks are taken.

Ramp up training on hazard identification, near miss reporting, behavioral risk observations, peer to peer feedback skills, and process safety inspections (to name a few).

Maintain a feedback-rich environment (at all levels) by constantly asking questions about risk taking and safe alternatives.

Reinforce each other when safe behaviors occur and reinforce the process by showing data, actions based on the data, and success stories. All this must be done in a setting where employees will never be punished for putting safety needs first.

In essence, provide employees with the support, skills, and reinforcement to act independently for safety… and they will.

And they will go “above and beyond.”

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