Practical Support for the Changing World at Work 
Linda F. Willing
P.O. Box 148
Grand Lake, CO
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Accidents, Mistakes, and Bad Decisions

FRI 2014
Linda F. Willing


Accidents can be either simple or complex. Simple accidents are usually the result of circumstance, inattention, or faulty assumptions. Complex accidents are a result of tightly coupled systems where one aspect of the system influences assumptions and actions in another part.

Mistakes are a result of lack of knowledge and experience to make a more informed decision. Mistakes are inadvertent—people are doing their best with the information they have at the time. Mistakes are sometimes related to external factors such as time pressure and lack of sleep.

Bad decisions can be either individual or systemic and are often linked to organizational culture. Bad decisions have history with cause. Norming of behavior can lead to organizational acceptance of incrementally worsening decisions until a crisis point is reached.

Accidents happen and are not entirely preventable, especially in a profession like firefighting. Accidents can be prevented and mitigated through incident analysis, training, safety gear, and good procedures.

Mistakes are necessary for people to learn new skills. As they say in skiing, “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” Training must support “safe” failures. Organizational culture cannot stigmatize mistakes to the point where people will make bad decisions to avoid being caught in an error.

Bad decisions are preventable. Since bad decisions are often a result of systemic issues, it is not useful to severely punish one person for something that has been normal behavior at an organizational level.

Good group decision making depends on:

  • Diversity of thought process or experience
  • The ability to express views or conclusions independently without undue pressure from the group to conform (groupthink)
  • Decentralization of decision making—the ability to solve problems where they are
  • Coordination—systems and processes for aggregating information and communicating it effectively


Accidents, mistakes and bad decisions must be handled differently. Each situation must be analyzed to determine the appropriate response.

  • Underreacting can lead to catastrophic failure and/or the norming of inappropriate or dangerous behavior.
  • Overreacting can lead to fear, cynicism, and loss of trust in leadership.


Ways to make better decisions:

  • Consciously create diverse groups or teams
  • Appoint a critical evaluator
  • Use as much time as you have. Don’t jump to solutions.
  • Consider how organizational culture affects decision making
  • Train everyone in effective communication skills
  • Train members to act as facilitators for effective group process
  • Do a skills and experience inventory and develop creative ways to use those resources.
  • Include ethics as part of basic fire department training
  • Never underestimate the power of example


Resources for better decision making:

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations  by James Surowiecki. Doubleday, 2004.

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Crown Business, 2013.

Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy. Public Affairs Press, 2012.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions by Dan Ariely. Harper-Collins, 2008.

Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan. Broadway Books, 2009.



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