When the Chernobyl series was announced on HBO, I was more than excited. After every episode, I was reading facts, interpretations, struggling to understand the science behind the accident with my limited knowledge of physics. Everything was so fascinating. So, what was the reason for one of the biggest ecological, nuclear catastrophes in human history?
While the series was based on historical events, certain things were imagined and added. The conclusion is that human errors and misjudgments are the main and only reason for the disaster. Right from the start in the first episode we can see the toxic working environment and the pressure those two younger engineers felt from their superior. Chief engineer Akimov forces his men to go and check the core of the fourth exploded reactor, even though other engineers told him that the core was gone. Not wanting to accept the worst scenario, he imposes his delusional opinion on others, thus risking the lives of thousands. Also, the fear of the communist regime played a major role in the delusional actions taken by the engineers and managers. We will never know for sure what really happened in that control room, although we know that there were many flaws in the reactor’s construction and many negligent mistakes from the authorities.
When it comes to the safety and health of the population, that kind of behavior is unjustifiable, but still, it has the same psychological mechanisms as our everyday encounters with our supervisors on a micro-level. And that mechanism is fear.
Some aspects of the management crisis of Chernobyl inspired me to think about how these employee-employer relations function on an everyday level. Oftentimes being bullied and a victim of mobbing, an employee can make mistakes he otherwise wouldn’t have made. Why is that so? Being bullied over a more extended period, people can easily become conditioned to a certain way of thinking and behavior. Afraid of causing or finding themselves in an argument, they avoid voicing their opinion even when it’s evident that the boss is making a mistake. It’s a kind of “The emperor’s new clothes” situation. You try to lay low and not to cause any disturbances. Again, and again you’ve been frightened with cuts on pay or lay-offs, so you fear for your existence.
Here’s one example of how this fear functions and how people avoid taking responsibility: “Armen Abajian, the director of one of the Moscow nuclear-power research institutes who had been dispatched to Pripyat as a member of the government commission, approached Shcherbina and demanded the city be evacuated. But according to government regulations adopted in the Soviet Union back in 1963, evacuation of the civilian population was not necessary unless the radiation dose accumulated by individuals reached the 75-roentgen mark. Calculations had shown that the intake might be about 4.5 roentgens per day with the current level of radioactivity. With the official threshold not yet met, Yevgenii Vorobev, the commission’s senior medical officer, was reluctant to take responsibility for ordering an evacuation.”
Why was Vorobev reluctant to order an evacuation? Even though he must have been aware he’s endangering the lives of many citizens, among them children. Again, the simple answer is fear. This culture of fear from our supervisors, directors, parents… drives us to make mistakes which we otherwise wouldn’t have made if we felt the freedom to choose and assess the situation.
The other day, my friend told me how sorry she was that she handled one situation at work so poorly. She realized that she was actually paralyzed from fear of a mistake, which paradoxically led her to misestimate the situation and make a mistake. Of course, it had nothing to do with endangering people’s lives, but she felt she would have managed it better if she weren’t so afraid in the back of her mind, listening to the criticizing voice of her boss.
We can take from these examples that inadequate communication and poor employment relationships can lead to consequences of ‘Chernobyl proportions.’ Therefore we need to build a climate for normal, constructive relations between co-workers and leaders.