We all make mistakes. Big or small, at some point we are each guilty of human error.

Sometimes, our mistakes can be as simple as forgetting where we left the phone or accidently pouring the orange juice on the cereal when we’re distracted.

Other times, our mistakes are more serious, like driving too fast and having a close call.

And from time to time our mistakes can end up causing injury and even death.

So what’s the common thread behind these different levels of human error?

And how can businesses prevent natural human error from affecting workplace safety and productivity?

The key is to understand the science behind mistakes.

“Supposedly smart people can make silly mistakes that result in catastrophic circumstances,” says Nada Wentzel, co-founder of The Jonah Group, which works with companies to help prevent workplace accidents and runs workshops on human error and safety.

Wentzel says three evolutionary features of the human brain helps us understand human error and what we can do to error-proof the workplace.

The first feature is that we are hardwired to avoid threats.

“But the brain does not distinguish between physical and emotional danger. And when danger is detected, the logical brain is deactivated,” says Wentzel, forcing people into automatic, reactive and emotional thinking.

This danger response in the workplace can be created by people feeling uncertainty, change and criticism.

Wentzel urges leaders to provide their people with certainty and stability and help them feel good about the work they are doing to minimise the risk of error. Essentially, the role of a leader is to create an emotionally safe environment.

The second feature is that our brains are wired to conserve energy. If the brain can see a quicker or easier way of doing something, it’s will most likely do that. This can result in short cuts or procedural creep in the workplace which can lead to mistakes.

Wentzel uses the example of solving a maths problem. Presented with a simple, single digit addition problem, most people are able to come up with a solution instinctively with little energy needed.

But when faced with a more complicated mental arithmetic problem, they resist – and often simply give up because the brain needs energy to solve that problem.

“I ask you simple questions and you fire it off on autopilot,” says Wentzel. “But that split second when you have to think, you just unconsciously check out. You feel like your brain is fried.

“Think about this from a safety perspective.

“What gets in the way is too much information, too many decisions and lack of clarity.

“What helps is simple information, fewer options and clear instructions.”

The final feature Wentzel points out is known as the need to confirm what we know. This gives us a feeling of safety and validation which is intrinsic to being human.

“We are wired to scan our environment. We process information in 0.4 seconds from the point of stimuli.”

“We see with our brain and not our eyes and we see what we expect to see.”

Wentzel says this means leaders need to give people permission to slow down, identify when these shortcuts are in play and intervene.


Nada is co-founder of The Jonah Group.

Nada knows safety. In 1998, she was working in the crisis management team at Esso Australia when the Longford incident killed two people injured seven others. Less than six months later, Nada was involved in a horrific personal accident, suffering burns to 35% of her body and requiring months of rehab to learn to walk again.

The accident led to a life-long inquiry to discover why smart people are capable of such stupid mistakes.

Today, Nada and The Jonah Group share that knowledge with leaders from the board room to the front line, driving real change in people’s attitudes, behaviour and mindset – and ensuring safety and wellbeing.

In a world where more than 2 million die every year from work related accidents and disease, safety is Jonah Group’s mission.

Whether mental health or physical safety, Jonah Group’s experts teach people the science of risk and help leaders build sustainable cultures of safety.

Jonah Group. Saving Lives. Protecting business.