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Why people take risks - Are they Risk Takers, Bold, Reckless or Pressured?

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

I remember when my son took his first step. With much encouragement from his older sister, he took that leap. First, he hesitated and then you could see, this is it. That was the moment when something just clicked. The look of achievement on his face and his equally proud sister was of pure satisfaction. Things like this don’t just happen though, he made a decision and took the risk, in this case, to walk or to fall. So, what motivated him? Was it his sister urging him on? Peer pressure, or was it something else? Are we all hard-wired to take risks? Is it this urge to take risks that make use human? For without risk-taking there would never have been the first fire, the first trap set for a Mammoth and the reward of protein which must have fuelled brain development to create flight, the first parachute jump and the moon landing. As a former paratrooper, risk is nothing new to me, but as a safety professional, I am intrigued to understand why people take risks. Why they literally risk life or limb?

Peter Bernstein says this in the forward of his book Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk: “The word "risk" derives from the early Italian risicare which means "to dare." In this sense, the risk is a choice rather than a fate. The actions we dare to take, which depend on how free we are to make choices, are what the story of risk is all about. And that story helps define what it means to be a human being."

My personal recommendation for some bed-time reading on what it means to take risks - Living the Best Day Ever by Hendri Coetzee. I had the privilege to share some time with Hendri when he reported for service to the elite military unit, 7 Medical Battalion Group. While reading his book, the similarities between his words and my own thoughts while serving, were striking.

"The boy is gone; in his place, at least superficially, is this. They tell me I am a warrior and I look the part, even if I don't feel like it. "Warrior..." it is still easier to say than "Man."

I qualified a year before Hendri as a medical support operator with 7 Medical Battalion Group allowing me to be attached to a Special Forces Unit as a medic. Jumping from aeroplanes and dangling from ropes underneath helicopters were regular occurrences but with it came also ... boredom. The space in those down times between adrenaline-charged activities, which was standard to the package-deal of serving in an operational airborne unit. Our official motto was Audaccismos Servamus - Serving the bravest. I never thought of myself as a warrior and I was too young to be a man. I thought then that I was doing all those things so others may live. That was my calling, to serve with the elite and in doing so, gain the opportunity to save lives. For Hendri, however, this whole experience was something else. Shortly after qualifying - receiving his Para jump wings and his medic operator's badge depicting a dagger, synonymous with special forces, with a serpent coiled around it, depicting Medic - Latin for Doctor - or healer, I remember Hendri telling me he was leaving the next day for Cape Town and then he would be off to Victoria Falls to take up a job as a Whitewater rafting guide. I remember thinking that it sounded like a nice adventure. Hendri talks about this adventure in his book, Living the Best Day Ever. He writes of leaving the military and going on to do something remarkable.

If I could survive what formerly seemed impossible, other impossibilities must also be mere illusions. I now have a powerful weapon: I have fallen in love with discipline and it will open every door with its simple philosophy of 'doing until it gets done.'

In my mind, Hendri never took risks which were disproportionate to his abilities which was honed by years of training. I know the discipline of planning and preparation for each expedition would be meticulous. 'Doing until it gets done.' that is the philosophy of elite warriors everywhere. I know that the hours and hours he had to spend during training in 7 Med would have prepared him for his life as an explorer. I have written an article on this culture titled 'Embedding Safety into Business Practice - What organisations can learn about performance and health and safety from the Paratroopers.'

Hendris' manuscript was completed by Kara Backmore, compiled from his diaries which he kept from a young age. The book tells the remarkable story of some of the most daring modern-day explorations in Africa. In 2004 Hendri Coetzee and his team set off by raft from Lake Victoria in Uganda to reach the Meditteranean sea 4 months later. The purpose of the trip was to draw attention to the humanitarian situation in the region. This, of course, refers to the Ugandan rebel leader Kony and the atrocities of the rebel group under his command as well as famine and war further down in Sudan. Hendri and his team completed 6700 kilometres in total from the source of the Nile to the sea. A modern-day explorer, what makes this significant is that they would have had to travel through war-ravaged countries where they would be easy pickings and could easily end up in a kidnap ransom situation. If that weren't enough they would also be battling Malari and other diseases, Crocodiles, wild animals and the wildest of them all - MAN. Hendri said this about a particular risky descent down the Murchinson falls.

It is hard to know the difference between irrational fear and instinct, but fortunate is he who can . Often there is no clear right or wrong option, only the safest one. And if safe was all I wanted, I would have stayed home in Jinja.

Jinja, of course, is on the shore of Lake Victoria. The source of the Nile. This wasn't Hendri's last adventure. His last would come a few years later in 2010. For his last expedition, Hendri was leading two Americans on a mission to document unexplored whitewater and development projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mission did not end well. On that fateful day, 7 December 2010, Hendri was taken off his kayak from behind by a monster crocodile. His two companions witnessing the attack from behind. A few days earlier (26 November) Hendri posted this in his blog.

"As I licked my dry lips and carefully checked that my spray deck was on properly, I had the feeling I might be doing something I should not. I pushed through the doubt and when I finally shot out the bottom of the rapid I was happy I did. It was just paranoia after all."

This is not the words of a risk-taker, it is the words of a professional with that feeling of unease which keeps you on your toes. Did he finally take it too far on that fateful day? Did he risk it all or was it just fate? I want to believe it was fate, in my mind I don't think Hendri took uncalculated risks. What are the chances of being taken from a kayak? Pretty slim I would imagine, for without risk-taking Hendri would never have "lived his best day ever." In 2011 his two American companions, pro kayakers Chris Korbulic and Ben Stookesbury released the film Kodoma about the life of Hendri as white water explorer. Kadoma the nickname given to him by his admirers and friends which hold the meaning for both traveller and bravery. A fitting nickname indeed.

For most readers, it would inevitably be a question of what did Hendri do there? I think Pete Blaber says it best in his book The mission, the men and me.

"Risk aversion and fear of the unknown are direct symptoms of a lack of context and are the polar opposites of audacity. the optimal way to deal with the unknown is to take action to develop the situation and make the unknown the known." Pete Blaber

Pete Blaber is a former commander of Delta Force-the most elite counter-terrorist organization in the world—he took part in some of the most dangerous, controversial, and significant military and political events of our time. For people like Hendri white water is not the unknown it is familiar ground. He was very aware of the risks involved in the sport, he believed in his capabilities and the risk for him was acceptable. Is this bold or being reckless? I don't think it is either Hendri from a risk management perspective was the epitome of the professional plying its trade in a very dangerous sport. What if that croc never took him off his kayak? In this case, I would say this had been fate. Yes, he chose to be on that river but the risk of being taken by a crocodile was unlikely. This is the most fundamental aspect of Risk Management to know your risks and to control them that is Risk being managed and it is no longer Risk Taking.

So when does risk being managed become risk-taking in the workplace? In health and safety literature there is a lot of talk and research about risk perception. In one of my previous articles, The search for certainty, risk-taking is a choice rather than a fate. Robert Lubbe and I explored the question around risk-taking and concluded that risk-taking is a choice, unless the situation was not perceived to be a risk. In other words the risk might not have been foreseen, due to, as in most cases, the lack of the ability to identify, describe and/or understand the risk. These are the most fundamental aspects of Risk Management. The next question then, of course, is why do people take risks, even when the risks have been identified? The answer is strangely enough almost always the same: “…the risk management rule is too demanding, not realistic, not practical” or “… because we can get away with it!” This is where the difference lies with workplace health and safety. People may break rules or make mistakes for a variety of reasons. Let us explore those further.

According to the literature, there are two types of failure, Human Error and Violations. In human error, there are two main streams. Errors based on skill, which is further divided into slips of action and lapses of memory. These two streams are often encountered when an accident occurred during monotonous work where the operator missed a step in a procedure, for example, where a worker forgot to insert a safety pin in a piece of machinery prior to working on the blades. A reason for this could be an interruption of the process or it could simply be that the operator forgot to insert the pin. The other main human error stream is when the operator makes a mistake. Mistakes are broken up in rule-based and knowledge-based mistakes. If we look at the example of the operator inserting a pin. This is a rule. Prior to working on the blades, a safety pin must be inserted. The worker fails to insert the pin in this example because maybe it takes too long. The last reason for making mistakes could be due to the operator simply not knowing that the safety pin has to be inserted prior to working on the blades. To prevent these types of human errors workers are provided with stipulated procedures or standing operating procedures (SOPs), training and in some cases, for example, when workers are not yet competent, they are provided with supervision. This is referred to as the capacity and capability to work safely. The HSE differentiated between Human Error and Violations, arguing that human error is unintentional and violations are intentional. This is, of course, true but this is where organisations fail often.

Why people make mistakes - adapted from the HSEs Toolkit -Understanding human failure

So why do people then still make mistakes? The answer is simple, rules are broken or violated. This rule-breaking could be routine violations, for example, the worker knows the pin needs to be inserted but don't bother because it takes too long and therefore it becomes a routine violation. So, the pin is never inserted. In SafetyII/Safety Differently circles, this is referred to as, work, as imagined vs the way work, is done. Situational violations occur normally when people are under pressure to complete a task such as during deadlines. Exceptional violations occur when a worker only chooses to break a rule under exceptional circumstances. A good example of this is during a crisis. Can you think of rules that have been broken during COVID-19? An example of an exceptional violation during a crisis is the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. During a safety test, it was revealed that an anomaly occurred but the operators ignored this to protect their test plan, which lead to an unstable reactor and ultimately the disastrous explosion.

In the example of the worker not inserting a pin because he didn’t know that it was required; this is a rule-based mistake but it is also a knowledge-based mistake. It was, however, not human error. It was a routine violation of a safety rule. This became "the way we work around here." The pin was no longer inserted when working on the blades, as it slowed down the clearing procedure. It became easier and quicker for the workers to use a prop to keep the blades up and away from the hands. Until the prop failed one day. People will make mistakes! That is as much a part of being human as it is to take risks. My boy fell a lot after his first steps and he continued to fall when learning to ride a bike. In the workplace, people will make mistakes, it is, however, the legal duty and the moral obligation of workplaces (organisations) to ensure that workers have the capacity and the capabilities - then safety comes naturally.

The lessons learned from the worker who failed to insert a pin revealed that there was a three-step process involved in making the machine safe. The machine is operated by 2 people, it is not a one-man operation. However when investigating it had been identified that the workers had adopted a way of work where the machine is operated by one person, leaving the second member free to do other work, therefore, completing more jobs. The procedure of using a three-step process had over time become a two-step process where the safety pin was no longer used. This “changed procedure” worked and thus it became an everyday occurrence. The interesting part, however, was that it worked. Therefore this was no longer an exception to the rule but rather how the team operated. This underpins the reasoning and supports the learning of “because things go right, is not enough to prove that it is safe”. Basic requirements like following manufacturers specifications should never be allowed to be ignored even if it makes the work easier and faster. This is an accident waiting to happen. So why did the workers do this? The answer is yet again one of multiple simple ones: they had been under pressure to deliver the work; induction and competency training was questionable; there was never any supervision; site visits or checks were not being undertaken, and the list of options continues. The interesting thing is that in the outcome of the investigation, the worker was blamed and who accepted human error as the cause for failing to insert the pin.

The aforementioned description is an organisational failure and not human error. But what if people know the risk and know the rule but still choose to do something else? What happens then? Is it possible that some people are just going to take an unnecessary risk due to their own choosing? According to a 2017 survey in the United States conducted in the construction sector, 3% of workers in that country said that they "always” take calculated risks while on the job. This in comparison with 33% of workers who said that they "never" ignore their training when doing something they know is risky.

"A good percentage of the time, many people take more risk than they should." John Gambatese - a workplace safety expert and professor of civil and construction engineering at the university of Oregon.

The literature revealed that risk-taking at work is almost always intentional and based on a calculated risk-taking approach based on what is known about the risk. Where the safety rule is perceived as not adding value or nonsensical then the rule will be broken in most cases at some time or another. When workers get away with it, unhurt, it may become “the way we do things around here.” This is prevalent when additional factors such as time demands are being put on workers to be productive for example when chasing targets and KPI's.

From my MSc research, I concluded that compliance alone, do not result in good health and safety performance. It was clear from the research program respondents’ replies that they were confident that they were achieving legal and organisational compliance. The physical performance assessments, however, in all cases but one, painted a different picture. The health and safety performance achieved in terms of ‘providing a safe workplace’ was poor. My research also included people's perception of safety and compliance. Leaders from organisations that partook in the research, thought that they are compliant and therefore were performing well in the health and safety arena. In reality, it just proved that, in most cases, compliance alone was just not enough to ensure a safe workplace. So, what does this have to do with why people take risks? People take risks when organisations allow them to; when organisations put constraints on them, they will improvise and take shortcuts. People take risks when they do not understand the risks, or because they haven't been trained properly on the topic, or they have not been inducted to the workspace. But people do not take risks just for the hell of it. This should not be confused with risk-taking by professional people who have put in all the training and who follow procedures. Sometimes accidents happen, that is a risk we are exposed to, but it is not the same as being reckless.


Coetzee, Hendri. 2013. Living the best day ever. Hendri Coetzee Trust

Health and Safety Executive. Leadership and worker involvement toolkit - Understanding human failure.

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