Organizational/Systemic Failure: Malignant/Dismissive Authority

In 1956, a handful of people died in the Arundel Park fire. “Several of the sample population indicated that when they entered the hall after observing the fire from outside the building, they warned their friends and suggested they leave but were laughed at, their warning apparently disregarded.” People have a difficult time interpreting indirect information. A psychology study in 1968 found that a person to reacting to the presence of smoke varied significantly by who they were in the presence of. If they were alone, they reported the smoke far faster than if they were in the presence of other people who ignored the smoke. This phenomenon is so important that it factors into the design of fire protection systems.

To follow the psychology of a failure situation, (a) a person needs to first recognize cues that indicate a problem, (b) the person needs some form of validation that the problem IS in fact a problem, “The presence of others during the threat recognition and validation process was found possibly to inhibit or influence the behavioral responses of the individual,” (c) the person tries to relate the problem to internal knowledge on how significant the threat is (defines it), “The individual’s stress and anxiety appear to be most severe before he or she has determined the situation’s structure or meaning, because it is apparent that the situation requires interpretation,” (d) the person engages in cognitive and psychological activities to respond to the problem (evaluates it), “The individual’s ability to reduce his or her stress and anxiety levels becomes the essential psychological factor,” and (e) the person reassesses (a)-(d) if the problem persists.

While the document linked below discusses fire specifically, these steps apply to many safety failures in general, particularly the kind that develop exponentially which are slow at first, then rapidly worsening. “One of the dangers in any organization (and this happens much too often) is where senior management does [or will] not understand that there is a problem within their organization unless they are specifically informed [by an entity that cannot be ignored]. This approach is extremely dangerous and poses significant risks to the organizations [EAJ additions in brackets].” (Safety Professional’s Reference and Guide by W. David Yates.) This explains a significant red flag for an organization/system of organizations experiencing a failure: malignant or dismissive regard for workers and/or clients. The material above explains why. Workers/Clients will have first-hand working experience of the failure, but whether it is recognized/validated/defined/evaluated is another issue altogether. In the case of dismissive authority, this process to addressing the problem is interrupted, guiding the worker/client to internally interpret the situation as not being the actual problem/threat that it is. A subset of this type of failure consists of a “positive” feedback loop.