Lessons from 9/11: How Conversations Can Galvanize Others to ActPublished: October 11, 2006 in Knowledge@Emory
United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked on September 11, 2001, and crashed into an empty field rather than into a Washington D.C. national landmark due to the heroics of passengers who organized a counterattack. The story of what happened aboard Flight 93 has not only grabbed the attention of filmmakers and journalists, but researchers as well. Monica Worline, a professor of organizational behavior at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, studies courage in workplace situations. A student of courage, she realized that actions by passengers to mount a counterattack against the hijackers flew in the face of previous academic study.
Intrigued, Worline and fellow researcher Ryan Quinn of the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia, plunged themselves into studying the incident, reading everything they could find, including transcripts of the flight recorders, the 9/11 Commission Report, and books written about the incident.
The result is a new paper entitled "Capabilities for Organizing Courage: The Story of United Airlines Flight 93." It is the first academic study to examine the group behavior dynamics aboard the plane on that fateful morning.
In the paper, the researchers explain that the passengers’ decision to act provides a counterexample for a long-standing contention in social science circles that people won't put themselves in danger to right a wrong. Specifically, it is in contrast to psychological studies based on the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder, where bystanders and witnesses surrounding her home in Queens, NY, watched but failed to intervene as the young woman was attacked and killed. That compelling incident sparked hundreds of research papers and culminated in several operating theories that are called by a variety of names. These include the Bystander Intervention Theory, which presumes that people will not intervene in dangerous situations when they perceive risk to themselves, the Kitty Genovese Syndrome, when many people witness a tragedy and fail to act, or the Diffusion of Responsibility Hypothesis, which contends that the greater number of bystanders, the less responsibility the individual feels, so the likelihood of any one individual taking action to help decreases.
Although no one is suggesting that passengers on Flight 93 were
mere bystanders, up to that point in history most hijacked passengers were pawns in a negotiation. Their role was to sit quietly and wait for the plane to land. Given that assumption, Worline and Quinn contend that most social scientists would predict, based on research conducted after the Kitty Genovese murder and the paralyzing effects of uncertainty, that no counterattack would occur on the plane.
The researchers also point to the fact that the Federal Aviation
Authority and the military were unable to act quickly, or indeed help
the Flight 93 passengers in any meaningful way, as evidence of the overwhelming confusion and difficulty in taking action in the circumstances. They suggest that the inaction on the part of so many that day makes the story of the passengers on the plane even more hopeful and important to understand.
Thus began the researchers’ journey into the specifics that led the group of strangers to act. What emerged was the chief finding of the study: that "people do things in conversations with others that create psychological resources that allow them to act in difficult situations," explain Worline and Quinn.
Their research reveals a process from conversation to action that can unfold in many different organizational situations, far from the extreme circumstances of hijacking or terrorism.
"We use Flight 93 as an extreme case that makes conversations very
vivid," Quinn says. "Conversations are part of the way people develop the ability to do courageous things at work. The same kinds of conversations occur in more mundane situations in workplace organizations."
In their paper, which has been invited for revision at the prestigious research journal Organizational Science, Worline and Quinn categorize the following types of resources that interactions with each other and the outside world provided the passengers. The researchers argue that gathering those resources are crucial to any workplace situation that requires courage to act:
Information Gathering. "People talk to other people outside the
situation and seek information about what's happening." In the case
of Flight 93, passenger Tom Burnett appears to have made four calls, including one in which he was told about the two other hijackings that had led to planes crashing into the towers of the World Trade Center.
"He immediately inferred that it was a suicide mission, and began to use that information to make inferences about the hijacker's motives and to enroll his seatmate and others into a new perception of their reality as victims of a suicide attack," the researchers explain.
Gaining permission. "Talking to people who matter in order to get
permission to take action creates a resource," says Worline, pointing to Jeremy Glick's call to his wife Lyz, who steeled him for the counterattack. “Managers often underestimate the value of encouraging employees to seek conversations with important people outside of the workplace as a means to create the nerve necessary to handle hard things inside the firm,” Worline explains.
Contacting loved ones. "Love was a resource that many aboard Flight 93 used to confront their circumstances. Most of the people who made telephone calls from Flight 93 contacted family members in hopes of expressing or receiving love. Many on the ground were able to help their family and friends on the plane by using love as a resource to enable them to organize courageous action.” In everyday organizational situations, managers can encourage work-family relationships that build employees’ sense of being loved. In addition, a workplace that feels like a community can foster people’s willingness to take risks on behalf of the organization.
Using Faith. Passenger Todd Beamer asked GTE-Verizon supervisor Lisa Jefferson about the hijacking, and asked Lisa to recite the Lord's Prayer with him. "As Lisa interacted with him in this way, she participated in a process of encouragement that created within
Todd the resource of faith in a higher power that could protect him,"
Worline and Quinn write. "When it was time to act, Lisa asked Todd
if attacking the hijackers was really what he wanted to do. Todd told
Lisa he was ‘going to have to go out on faith.’” Some workplaces are realizing that people’s faith can also be a source of encouragement for perseverance at work, Worline notes.
Weapons as a resource. "It's clear that people on Flight 93 used a process of encouragement to transform ordinary items like pots of boiling water and a food cart into physical weapons that enabled them to enact a new narrative of counterattack." In everyday organizations, it is often the case that people can improvise with everyday items to make progress on difficult problems. This kind of improvisation is a form of creativity under extreme pressure that organizations need to know how to develop, according to Worline.
Time as a resource. "Passengers and crew aboard all the planes hijacked on September 11, 2001, had time between the hijacking and when the planes crashed, but the people aboard Flight 93 had the most time," the researchers note. "Time became a more valuable resource on Flight 93 because passengers were able to use the 20 minutes or so to make phone calls, gather information, interact with each other, coordinate their actions and plan for the use of their limited collective resources."
In the end, it is not entirely clear that everyone knew or believed the plane was going down. There was debate aboard the plane about whether it was a suicide hijacking or not. The passengers ultimately decided that it was worth an attempt to take control of the plane and try to land it, despite the uncertainty, notes Worline. “In the Kitty Genovese case there also was uncertainty about what exactly was happening, which tended to paralyze people and stop them from taking action to address the situation. In our paper, we show that interpersonal dynamics and conversational resources made the uncertainty manageable enough so that the passengers could act."
When translating the actions of those aboard the plane to the day-to-day dynamics in work organizations, Worline and Quinn suggest imaging that you’ve just been told your company is part of a merger or takeover. What is your response? “For most people,” Worline explains, “their first response is a feeling of stress or fear and a desire to glean more information and talk to others in the organization to find out more about what is happening.” Though nowhere close to the extremity of Flight 93, this type of first response is an almost exact replica of the typical responses of people aboard that plane. Co-author Quinn adds, “When people use their time to create conversations that allow them to gather information, those conversations also can create resources that allow people to be proactive and make a place for themselves in the new merged organization. When that happens, the process is similar to the proactive use of time and information to create the capacity for an active response that we see aboard Flight 93.”
Indeed, as time passes, Worline and Quinn hope that the positive group dynamics that led to the courageous counterattack will be seen as more and more heroic.
"The Kitty Genovese story has become an exemplary story of how people think and act in dangerous circumstances," Worline says. "I hope this research shows that such a reaction is only one possibility. There are times when people do get involved, take action, and try to help others around them. Knowing what prevents people from acting doesn't tell you what encourages people to act. This rounds out the research picture."