Previous Article Next Article Voice of reasonOn 21 Mar 2000 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos. HR professionals stand to learn some valuable lessons from the way hostagenegotiators work in hijack situations. And the parallels go further than simplydefusing situations of confrontationYou probably think you’ve survived some tough negotiations in your time butcan you imagine what it’s like trying to negotiate the release of 150 hostagesfrom a plane hijacked by two strangers making threatening noises in a foreignlanguage over the radio? As David Learmount, operations and safety editor ofFlight International magazine, who has followed these incidents for more than20 years, says, “The hijackers will insist they’re armed and for all youknow they’ve got nothing more threatening than a brown paper bag, but you haveto assume they have a gun or a bomb.”In a third of cases, according to a study by Louisville University inKentucky, 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 higherthan 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 therealways is an end because, unlike many conflicts in business, this is a dramawhich cannot be deferred or avoided, there has to be a resolution and, for thesake 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 butthe tactic of hostage-taking goes back at least as far as the Crusades and, forexample, the holding of King Richard I to ransom. Simon Adamsdale, director of Control Risk, a security consultancy founded in1975, 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 itis one of the more unpleasant side-effects of globalisation, with a growingnumber of expat executives as a target.”While ransoming is common in south America, say, hostage-taking is notunknown in the UK. In 1995, residents in the drought-stricken village of CefnHengoed, near Swansea, took two water workers hostage until the water board’s”head boyo” turned up. Two years later, a Lambeth man held a gasfitter at knifepoint until he fitted new parts to his central heating system.It sounds almost comic but the fitter in question needed six months ofcounselling afterwards.Hijacking is an even more recent phenomena than the technology it preys onand, as a crime, has its own complex psychology. As Learmount says, “Ahijacker is usually someone who wants publicity, wants something to happen forhis cause or someone who is somewhere they don’t want to be and thinks a hijackis their best way of getting somewhere else.” The latter must apply to the sadly anonymous hijacker who stood up on aninternal American flight three years ago and told the pilot, in a menacingvoice, to take the plane to Detroit. He was rather nonplussed when the pilottold him that was where they were heading. “The one thing hijackings arevery rarely about,” concludes Learmount, “is just money and nothingelse.”The drama unfoldsEach hijacking has its own peculiarly awful moments of drama and yet theyare all essentially a play in three acts – seizure, negotiation and resolution,violent or peaceful. The moment of maximum danger is when the hijackers maketheir play, an event described by a victim of the 1996 hijack of a Sudaneseairliner as “like a football riot. People were hitting one other andfighting the terrorists, and the other hijackers began standing up, shiftingseats all the time”.The crew are under instructions not to take risks either with their own orpassengers’ lives and will stay on the sidelines, hoping the hijackers begin negotiations.This is a good sign because research conducted by the Los Angeles PoliceDepartment, which monitors all kinds of hostage situations, shows that in fourout of five cases these talks lead to a peaceful settlement. This is some feat because, in many cases, the concessions made by thenegotiators to secure the hostages’ release are minute and the hijackers facethe near certainty of 20 years in prison. Where hijackers escape with theirfreedom, and a car, as happened with the Indian Airlines plane last December,Paul Kearns of Personnel Works says, “It’s like a company makingshort-term concessions which store up trouble for the future.”The basic premise of the negotiators is summed up most effectively by theLAPD’s Michael Albanese, who says, “The emotion-based solution thehostage-taker chooses to resolve his or her problem can be modified given theright verbal and/or tactical strategy. The goal of crisis negotiation is to buytime 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 constructivelycan help achieve the right outcome. Although every crisis creates its owndemand for an instant reaction, students of decision-making say companies mightbe better off buying time, as long as they use it constructively. The sametactic can be seen in another famous negotiation, the 1962 Cuban missile crisiswhere both President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev used time towear down their hawks and construct a peaceful compromise (“You take yourmissiles out and we won’t invade your ally”).Negotiators usually begin hijack talks knowing nothing for definite aboutthe hostage-takers except the country where the plane was seized. This soundslike a weakness but they are trained to turn it into a strength. “Theywill want to know: ‘Who are these hijackers?’, ‘What do they really want?’,‘Are they amateurs or professionals?, How do they see us?, What do theyrealistically think we can give them?’,” says Learmount. This is almost the exact opposite of what happens in most companies, where amanager knows something about whoever is sitting opposite – be they a talentedemployee 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 employeesand their grasp of staff motivation. Sometimes, the only way to shed thesedelusions is to start from scratch by asking the basic questions hostagenegotiators have to answer.This is especially true because, as Kearns says, “When you read aboutthese hijackings it often reminds me of my days in industrial relations wherethe union would turn up with a shopping list and it was up to you to work outwhat 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 theirunhappiness. Instead, they will start with a tirade or a demand which may seemoutrageous, just as the hijackers of the Indian Airlines plane last Decemberasked for $200m and the return of the body of a colleague, only to have bothrequests turned down flat by Afghanistan’s Taliban government.Often, hijackers’ first demands are boiled down – through time, pressure andexhaustion – to one final yet trivial demand. The recent Stansted airporthijack ended when the hijackers were persuaded to release the remaining 85hostages in return for stating “their fears about what would happen tothem if they went back to Afghanistan for the record”.The essential first step is to build trust. Given the gulf that is oftenfelt to separate a manager and an employer, or two sides of industry, theremarkable thing is how consistently crisis negotiators persuade the hijackers– who they usually cannot see and sometimes may be communicating with through atranslator or a pilot – to place their faith in them. By 2.30am on Thursday 10 February, three days after the Ariana plane hadlanded at Stansted, negotiators and hijackers were “sharing confidencesabout their personal relationships”. Indeed the rapport became so strongthat at 3am two of the hijackers left the plane for a face-to-face meeting withtheir “favourite” negotiators. This puts the task of building trustbetween manager and employee into some kind of perspective.Trust is often built out of small gestures because in the drama of a hijackeverything seems, and is deliberately made out by the negotiators to be, ofimmense significance. “You can see a similarity with business,” saysKearns. “Personnel departments are often stigmatised as offering nothingbut 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 ifthey’re not handled well.”The difference is that in a hijacking, a cup of coffee is not something tobe delivered as a matter of courtesy to create the right ambience, it is anegotiating tool. “The process, which is taken from the way intelligentinterrogations 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 heresoon’ and then you do nothing until you sense that it’s becoming dangerous andthen you sort it out so that the delivery of some water seems, to thehijackers, a major triumph. The trick is to do everything slowly. You couldcall it talking them into submission.”Talking them into submission is, in the UK, usually the job of two teamleaders on 12-hour shifts, each of whom has five other team members – one ofwhom will be a psychologist. There is a coordinating committee attached to theHome Office called Cobra, which sometimes gets involved. A specially trainedSAS unit is also usually on hand in case the plane has to be stormed and, atStansted, up to 120 Essex officers were on duty at the airport. Talks werereported to be led by Essex Police Detective Chief Inspector Wynn Bernard butthe force’s press office refused to confirm this.Heart-stopping momentThe point at which even the negotiators began to fear the Stansted hijackmight end badly came in the early hours of the morning of 9 February, when thecrew of the Ariana airliner slipped out of the cockpit. Soon after, a flightattendant was pushed down the plane’s steps falling onto the tarmac and cuttinghis face.Inside the plane, said David Stevens, chief constable of Essex, “Thehijackers were screaming, making clear threats to injure the passengers”.Talks stopped for three hours until the negotiators finally managed to open upa 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 worksin 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 tobe used in some hijackings – James Bond’s Q would be proud of the microphonesrumoured to have been hidden in baskets of fruit delivered to hijacked planes.But most HR managers would be improved if they could, as hostage negotiatorsare trained to do, handle tough conversations without fear and withouttherefore being unduly defensive.By Paul SimpsonHijacks – triumphs and tragedies1976, Air France, EntebbeIsraeli commandos stormed the plane and killed all the Palestinian hijackersbut one commando and three hostages were killed in the raid.1985, Egypt Air, MaltaFifty-nine passengers were killed when three Palestinians hijacked flight648 and it was stormed by Egyptian commandos. Passenger Jackie Nink Pflug, whowas shot in the skull and left on the tarmac for dead, miraculously survivedand is now a motivational speaker in the US.1995, Olympic Airways, AthensEthiopian journalist Samsu Kapre took a stewardess hostage for 90 minutesand threatened her with a knife. His main demand was to be interviewed by themedia about the plight of his country. Greek authorities sent a fake TV crewcomposed of anti-terrorist officers on to the plane and overpowered Kapre as hegazed into the camera. No one was hurt.1996, Ethiopian Airlines, Comoros IslandsTwo hijackers refused to believe pilots’ claims that flight ET 961 fromAddis Ababa was running out of fuel until it crashed, killing 130 of thepassengers and crew. “They didn’t believe the crew even when the pilotpointed to the controls,” says Learmount, “they were drinking gin bythen and having a good time. Nobody was really sure what they wanted.”1999, India Airlines, KabulFlight IC-814 was seized by hijackers and flew to Kabul where eventually,the Indian government agreed to demands to free some Islamic activists. Thehijackers drove away to freedom and India Airlines was left trying to explainhow five hijackers could have got on to the plane with boarding passes bearingthe same name.