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Feb 2016


(Why we do what we do)

graphic depicting the word mistake crossed out

I suppose it is tempting,
if the only tool you have is a hammer,
to treat everything as if it were a nail.

— Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being


One of the most frequent comments I get when talking to people about safety is: “Why are people making stupid mistakes?”. In many people’s minds this then extends to the (illogical) conclusion that people who make mistakes are stupid.

Apart from being a generalisation and over-simplification of a complex behavioural issue, one which often leads to stereotyping, it also shines a light on the power of the made up mind.

When we assume that the mistake was stupid, we are ourselves making the first mistake. Until we have established why people did what they did, is it really a mistake or the result of a genuine effort to do the right thing which did not work out as intended?

There are many reasons why things are done differently at the ‘sharp end’ and these are often overlooked when we try and find the cause of a ‘deviation’:

  • We are thinking humans with reason, memories and moods
  • We make adjustments to stay on course, but things can still go wrong
  • A mis- (wrong) take is a behaviour and not a personality trait
  • There is no one size fits all – some are more prone to making mistakes than others
  • We all take risks, the level varying over time and with mood
  • We don’t always read people and situations correctly
  • We are good at finding mistakes, especially in hindsight, and at blaming others
  • Our schooling is based on marking papers by finding mistakes
  • There are many kinds of intelligence and people who are seen to make stupid mistakes in one domain are often highly intelligent in another respect – IQ, EQ, NS … whatever “quotients” or “smarts” you want to use  [1].

That being said, it cannot be denied that there are some actions which are avoidable:

  • Lack of awareness and making assumptions
  • Lack of care for others and property
  • Bad analysis and being willfully ignorant
  • Taking ‘lazy’ shortcuts without thinking about what we are doing
  • Allowing ourselves to be distracted
  • Allowing worry and fear to cloud our judgement
  • Not making time to stop and think about the consequences of our actions
  • Too much haste and too much noise to see clearly


  1. Be careful before blaming ‘the PEOPLE factor’ – don’t assume the person / people made a mistake. Without people making adjustments and controlling processes, virtually nothing in this world would function on its own
  2. Don’t look for and label things which do not conform to your standards as a ‘mistake’ or ‘near miss’.
  3. Shift your mindset from ‘preventing things from going wrong’ (re-active) to ‘ensuring things go right’ (pro-active). This is in line with ‘catch people doing the right thing’ and giving recognition  [2].
  4. Encourage and reward employees to share what they have to do or adjust to ensure ‘things go right’ (production, quality, costs, etc.), especially when the rules don’t work and no one is looking or checking up.

[1]    Types of intelligence (smarts) – Nature / Musical / Number / Reasoning / Existential / People / Self / Body / Word / Picture

[2]    Safety I & Safety II by Erik Hollnagel


Your comments and feedback are always welcome!

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