Published: 19 March 2024

Updated: 21 March 2024

Decision- making challenges frequently emerge as one of the contributing factors to maritime incidents reviewed by the Britannia Loss Prevention team.

The Club has since partnered with CONOVAH, a Danish consultancy specialising in mental well-being and psychological support for seafarers, to explore the psychology of decision-making in safety-critical situations. The objective was to achieve a more profound understanding of how these complex situations evolve and provide practical tools on how these can be managed to mitigate the risks of an incident. This paper serves as a short introduction to this complex topic and is relevant to almost everyone tasked with managing safety-critical situations within ship operations – from officers to ratings, marine pilots, and shore personnel.

First, let’s break down what decision-making is all about. Simply put, it is the process of choosing between different options or courses of action. In more complex terms, decision-making involves a mix of cognitive and emotional processes influenced by various external and internal factors. It’s important to note that decision-making isn’t a one-size-fits-all process; different circumstances, like time constraints, limited resources, or incomplete information, can significantly impact how decisions are made. Recognising this variability is important for effective decision-making.

Research from various industries, including aviation, military, firefighting, and emergency medical services, has led to the development of various decision- making models. One of such models is the IGLO model. The IGLO model considers the dynamics of the individual (I), the group (G), leadership (L), and the organisation (O) in influencing decision-making processes. It provides a holistic approach, shedding light on how individuals are influenced by their personal attributes, group dynamics, leadership, and organisational structures
when making critical choices.

A common real-life scenario where the IGLO model can be applied is during pilotage, particularly when a critical situation develops, and the master feels the need to question the pilot’s advice and intervene. While such situations may seem relatively simple in hindsight, they can be quite complex as they unfold. The master’s ability and confidence to intervene are often determined by multiple factors, including individual, group, and organisational aspects. These complex situations and dynamics have been further highlighted by the Club’s loss prevention guidance on Ship Pilotage and Intervention.

In situations where every second counts, decision-making takes on an even greater significance. Being equipped with the right tools and knowledge can make all the difference. Therefore, training exercises that simulate emergency situations are essential for preparing teams to make quick, effective decisions under pressure.

The choice of the training method will be determined by the decision-making model theory applied and the learning needs e.g., whether it is intended to improve the expertise in a particular scenario or improve general decision-making skills. The training should be provided in a realistic but controlled environment such as a simulator, in group sessions or individually. It is important that the participants are assisted by a suitably skilled mentor or interviewer to provide constructive feedback.

Such training may include the following elements:

  • Training to improve one’s ability to assess situations and understand how such scenarios can affect one’s mental ability to make rational decisions
  • Techniques to reduce or eliminate biases by being aware of their potential consequences, and how to identify them in the decision-making process
  • Awareness and control of an individual’s attitudes and motivations which may affect decision-making
  • Knowledge and understanding of an individual’s own thinking in stressful situations.

Decision-support systems offer another layer of assistance in complex situations. These systems can rapidly process data, analyse risk factors aiding in more precise and timely decision-making. While these tools are incredibly valuable, it’s important to remember that they are meant to support, not replace, human judgement. Therefore, combining the insights from these systems with human expertise through proper training can greatly enhance safety measures.

This paper briefly introduces and outlines basic theories and tools for critical decision-making. If you are interested in gaining a deeper understanding and improving your decision-making, four guides  support this introduction, each exploring areas essential to safety-critical decision-making.

General introduction to decision making
• Safety- critical scenarios key aspects
• Understanding decision making
• Theoretical perspectives ad models of decision making

Human mind and decision making
• Understanding cognitive biases
• The role of emotions
• How do we process information in decision making
• Managing emotions and biases

Enhancing communication for decision making
• Communicating clearly in critical situations
• Collaborative decision making
• Constructive feedback
• Navigating difficult conversations
• Communication and organisational culture

Decision making from organisational perspective
• IGLO model
• Power dynamics and hierarchies
• Psychological safety
• Managing pressures and priorities
• The power of leadership
• Decision making in emergency situations

The four guides provide readers with a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by decision makers and includes examples related to real world shipboard situations, and may be used in several ways, from self-guided individual study to group review of the content. Enabling shipowners or managers to develop their own focused training.

For further information, please do not hesitate to contact the loss prevention department.