HR professionals stand to learn some valuable lessons from the way hostage
negotiators work in hijack situations. And the parallels go further than simply
defusing situations of confrontation
You probably think you’ve survived some tough negotiations in your time but
can you imagine what it’s like trying to negotiate the release of 150 hostages
from a plane hijacked by two strangers making threatening noises in a foreign
language over the radio? As David Learmount, operations and safety editor of
Flight International magazine, who has followed these incidents for more than
20 years, says, "The hijackers will insist they’re armed and for all you
know they’ve got nothing more threatening than a brown paper bag, but you have
to assume they have a gun or a bomb."
In a third of cases, according to a study by Louisville University in
Kentucky, the person you are negotiating with will threaten to kill themselves
– and, in one in 10 cases, that threat is carried out. The stakes are higher
than the richest no-limits Las Vegas poker game and the negotiators are there,
with no opportunity to throw in their cards, until the very end. And there
always is an end because, unlike many conflicts in business, this is a drama
which cannot be deferred or avoided, there has to be a resolution and, for the
sake of the members of the public caught in it, the sooner the better.
Most of us think of hostages as airline passengers or captives in Beirut but
the tactic of hostage-taking goes back at least as far as the Crusades and, for
example, the holding of King Richard I to ransom.
Simon Adamsdale, director of Control Risk, a security consultancy founded in
1975, says thousands of hostages are taken around the world every year.
"But in 90 per cent of the cases the motivation is money. You could say it
is one of the more unpleasant side-effects of globalisation, with a growing
number of expat executives as a target."
While ransoming is common in south America, say, hostage-taking is not
unknown in the UK. In 1995, residents in the drought-stricken village of Cefn
Hengoed, near Swansea, took two water workers hostage until the water board’s
"head boyo" turned up. Two years later, a Lambeth man held a gas
fitter at knifepoint until he fitted new parts to his central heating system.
It sounds almost comic but the fitter in question needed six months of
Hijacking is an even more recent phenomena than the technology it preys on
and, as a crime, has its own complex psychology. As Learmount says, "A
hijacker is usually someone who wants publicity, wants something to happen for
his cause or someone who is somewhere they don’t want to be and thinks a hijack
is their best way of getting somewhere else."
The latter must apply to the sadly anonymous hijacker who stood up on an
internal American flight three years ago and told the pilot, in a menacing
voice, to take the plane to Detroit. He was rather nonplussed when the pilot
told him that was where they were heading. "The one thing hijackings are
very rarely about," concludes Learmount, "is just money and nothing
The drama unfolds
Each hijacking has its own peculiarly awful moments of drama and yet they
are all essentially a play in three acts – seizure, negotiation and resolution,
violent or peaceful. The moment of maximum danger is when the hijackers make
their play, an event described by a victim of the 1996 hijack of a Sudanese
airliner as "like a football riot. People were hitting one other and
fighting the terrorists, and the other hijackers began standing up, shifting
seats all the time".
The crew are under instructions not to take risks either with their own or
passengers’ lives and will stay on the sidelines, hoping the hijackers begin negotiations.
This is a good sign because research conducted by the Los Angeles Police
Department, which monitors all kinds of hostage situations, shows that in four
out of five cases these talks lead to a peaceful settlement.
This is some feat because, in many cases, the concessions made by the
negotiators to secure the hostages’ release are minute and the hijackers face
the near certainty of 20 years in prison. Where hijackers escape with their
freedom, and a car, as happened with the Indian Airlines plane last December,
Paul Kearns of Personnel Works says, "It’s like a company making
short-term concessions which store up trouble for the future."
The basic premise of the negotiators is summed up most effectively by the
LAPD’s Michael Albanese, who says, "The emotion-based solution the
hostage-taker chooses to resolve his or her problem can be modified given the
right verbal and/or tactical strategy. The goal of crisis negotiation is to buy
time so that emotions can decrease, rationality can increase and a defensible,
viable, surrender and/or tactical resolution can be implemented."
There is a lesson for business here: buying time and using it constructively
can help achieve the right outcome. Although every crisis creates its own
demand for an instant reaction, students of decision-making say companies might
be better off buying time, as long as they use it constructively. The same
tactic can be seen in another famous negotiation, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis
where both President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev used time to
wear down their hawks and construct a peaceful compromise ("You take your
missiles out and we won’t invade your ally").
Negotiators usually begin hijack talks knowing nothing for definite about
the hostage-takers except the country where the plane was seized. This sounds
like a weakness but they are trained to turn it into a strength. "They
will want to know: ‘Who are these hijackers?’, ‘What do they really want?’,
‘Are they amateurs or professionals?, How do they see us?, What do they
realistically think we can give them?’," says Learmount.
This is almost the exact opposite of what happens in most companies, where a
manager knows something about whoever is sitting opposite – be they a talented
employee who is about to quit or a union negotiator – and assumes, therefore,
that they know everything. As countless surveys of the workforce have proved,
most managers delude themselves about their relationship with their employees
and their grasp of staff motivation. Sometimes, the only way to shed these
delusions is to start from scratch by asking the basic questions hostage
negotiators have to answer.
This is especially true because, as Kearns says, "When you read about
these hijackings it often reminds me of my days in industrial relations where
the union would turn up with a shopping list and it was up to you to work out
what they really wanted and which items on that list you could live with."
An employee who is unhappy may not clearly identify the source of their
unhappiness. Instead, they will start with a tirade or a demand which may seem
outrageous, just as the hijackers of the Indian Airlines plane last December
asked for $200m and the return of the body of a colleague, only to have both
requests turned down flat by Afghanistan’s Taliban government.
Often, hijackers’ first demands are boiled down – through time, pressure and
exhaustion – to one final yet trivial demand. The recent Stansted airport
hijack ended when the hijackers were persuaded to release the remaining 85
hostages in return for stating "their fears about what would happen to
them if they went back to Afghanistan for the record".
The essential first step is to build trust. Given the gulf that is often
felt to separate a manager and an employer, or two sides of industry, the
remarkable thing is how consistently crisis negotiators persuade the hijackers
– who they usually cannot see and sometimes may be communicating with through a
translator or a pilot – to place their faith in them.
By 2.30am on Thursday 10 February, three days after the Ariana plane had
landed at Stansted, negotiators and hijackers were "sharing confidences
about their personal relationships". Indeed the rapport became so strong
that at 3am two of the hijackers left the plane for a face-to-face meeting with
their "favourite" negotiators. This puts the task of building trust
between manager and employee into some kind of perspective.
Trust is often built out of small gestures because in the drama of a hijack
everything seems, and is deliberately made out by the negotiators to be, of
immense significance. "You can see a similarity with business," says
Kearns. "Personnel departments are often stigmatised as offering nothing
but tea and sympathy but as you find in hijacks, the small stuff matters.
Things like cups of tea don’t sound important but they can become important if
they’re not handled well."
The difference is that in a hijacking, a cup of coffee is not something to
be delivered as a matter of courtesy to create the right ambience, it is a
negotiating tool. "The process, which is taken from the way intelligent
interrogations were conducted in the Second World War, is to raise their hopes,
dash them and keep raising them and dashing them again," says Learmount.
"If they want supplies delivered, you say, ‘Oh yes, they will be here
soon’ and then you do nothing until you sense that it’s becoming dangerous and
then you sort it out so that the delivery of some water seems, to the
hijackers, a major triumph. The trick is to do everything slowly. You could
call it talking them into submission."
Talking them into submission is, in the UK, usually the job of two team
leaders on 12-hour shifts, each of whom has five other team members – one of
whom will be a psychologist. There is a coordinating committee attached to the
Home Office called Cobra, which sometimes gets involved. A specially trained
SAS unit is also usually on hand in case the plane has to be stormed and, at
Stansted, up to 120 Essex officers were on duty at the airport. Talks were
reported to be led by Essex Police Detective Chief Inspector Wynn Bernard but
the force’s press office refused to confirm this.
The point at which even the negotiators began to fear the Stansted hijack
might end badly came in the early hours of the morning of 9 February, when the
crew of the Ariana airliner slipped out of the cockpit. Soon after, a flight
attendant was pushed down the plane’s steps falling onto the tarmac and cutting
Inside the plane, said David Stevens, chief constable of Essex, "The
hijackers were screaming, making clear threats to injure the passengers".
Talks stopped for three hours until the negotiators finally managed to open up
a conversation about food, just to get them talking. Less than 24 hours later,
all 150 hostages had been released and the hijackers arrested.
Talking the other party into surrender is not, alas, a trick that often works
in industry. In business, outcomes should not, ideally, be as one-sided. Nor,
for that matter, do managers have access to the kind of spy technology said to
be used in some hijackings – James Bond’s Q would be proud of the microphones
rumoured to have been hidden in baskets of fruit delivered to hijacked planes.
But most HR managers would be improved if they could, as hostage negotiators
are trained to do, handle tough conversations without fear and without
therefore being unduly defensive.
By Paul Simpson
Hijacks – triumphs and tragedies
1976, Air France, Entebbe
Israeli commandos stormed the plane and killed all the Palestinian hijackers
but one commando and three hostages were killed in the raid.
1985, Egypt Air, Malta
Fifty-nine passengers were killed when three Palestinians hijacked flight
648 and it was stormed by Egyptian commandos. Passenger Jackie Nink Pflug, who
was shot in the skull and left on the tarmac for dead, miraculously survived
and is now a motivational speaker in the US.
1995, Olympic Airways, Athens
Ethiopian journalist Samsu Kapre took a stewardess hostage for 90 minutes
and threatened her with a knife. His main demand was to be interviewed by the
media about the plight of his country. Greek authorities sent a fake TV crew
composed of anti-terrorist officers on to the plane and overpowered Kapre as he
gazed into the camera. No one was hurt.
1996, Ethiopian Airlines, Comoros Islands
Two hijackers refused to believe pilots’ claims that flight ET 961 from
Addis Ababa was running out of fuel until it crashed, killing 130 of the
passengers and crew. "They didn’t believe the crew even when the pilot
pointed to the controls," says Learmount, "they were drinking gin by
then and having a good time. Nobody was really sure what they wanted."
1999, India Airlines, Kabul
Flight IC-814 was seized by hijackers and flew to Kabul where eventually,
the Indian government agreed to demands to free some Islamic activists. The
hijackers drove away to freedom and India Airlines was left trying to explain
how five hijackers could have got on to the plane with boarding passes bearing
the same name.