TOTAL RECALL? How memories can impact Leadership decision making.

“Memories …… or has time rewritten every line?” – from: The Way we Were

What did you do on 12th March 1999?  Most people will be unable to think of anything they did on that day without reference to notes.

What did you do on 11th September 2001?  That is a bit easier, particularly when I jog your memory that this was 9/11.  The reason that it is easier to remember what you did on this day is that it is associated with the highly memorable events in the US.  When recollecting memorable events such as 9/11 there are relatively few similar memories competing with them.  On ‘average’ days, such as 12th March 1999, with nothing exceptional to recall, memories become blurred and merge together with those of other average days.  Those who can remember what they did on 12th March 1999 probably linked the day to a memorable event such as a birthday.

You may well be one of the people joining the 80% of Americans that can remember what you were doing on 9/11 when you saw the video of the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Centre and then the video of the second plane hitting the South Tower.

However, memories are not fixed and immutable.  When memories are retrieved, they are in ‘Edit’ mode.  They can be amended or even vanish.

If, like 80% of Americans, you can remember seeing the video of the first plane hitting the North Tower on 9/11, you are mis-remembering.  This video was not broadcast until the following day.  What has happened is that you know the North Tower was hit before the South Tower and, even though you did not see the video of the first attack until the following day, your memory has stitched together the sequence of events as you know them to be, not as you experienced them.  Don’t worry, you are in the company of the famous, President George Bush also mis-remembered this event.

If remembering correctly events that we have experienced is problematic, how much harder is it to remember our state of knowledge at any particular time in the past?  An experiment was run in the US in 1972 – 73 at the time that President Nixon visited China.  Various ‘experts’ were asked to assign probabilities to a number of outcomes from the visit: would the US grant diplomatic recognition to China, would Mao meet Nixon …   Following the visit, the same experts were reassembled and asked to recall the probabilities that they had originally assigned to the outcomes.  The results showed that if an outcome had occurred, people exaggerated the probability that they had assigned to it.  If the outcome had not occurred, people erroneously recalled that they had considered it unlikely.

“The human mind can not reconstruct past states of knowledge or beliefs that have changed”.

So what does this mean for organisations in responding to emergencies or crises?

The first thing is to recognise that memory is fallible and to ensure that all relevant factual information should be logged accurately and in a timely fashion.

The second thing is to recognise that simply logging factual information is insufficient.  Information regarding the factors affecting decision making must also be recorded in a ‘decision log’.  This will:

  • Provide an accurate and timely record of the decision process.
  • Support reasoned, lawful and justifiable decision making at the time.
  • Assist in subsequent accounting for decisions.

Paul Scoggins is a City of London based solicitor advocate.  He tends to defend people in positions of senior management whose only job is to make decisions.  In talking about decision making during a security incident, particularly early decision making, Paul Scoggins has said:

“What if in the early stages of an incident a security man dithers over whether to evacuate or declare an emergency, for fear of over-reacting. Yet a decision made early on may be with the least time available and in a maze of conflicting information. What of your judgement? It’s up to you. A lawyer will defend on the evidence, which is not the same as the truth. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying; this is not the difference between truth and lies. Truth and facts are judgements; they are what other people say to you about what they see. I deal with evidence. Evidence is what it is: good, bad, indifferent.  Evidence is charts, logs, and memos – paperwork, which could be exhibits in court, your protection in the [court witness] box.”

In effect:  “If its not recorded in the log – It didn’t happen; or you will have a great deal of difficulty establishing it did in the way you said it did.”

Of course, it will not always be obvious that an incident is going to develop into an emergency or crisis and that a decision log should be started.  Take the case of the ‘pleb gate’ scandal in which Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling a policeman a pleb.  The most senior police officer at the scene at the time of the incident considered it was simply a quirky incident and did not keep a proper record because: “I was eating my sandwiches. I couldn’t be arsed to write much more …”

Would you be happy making that statement in an inquiry?

nStratagem can provide you with coaching and mentoring to assist you in memory continuity and clarity in decision making.


Look forward to your thoughts and comments on this article.
Jon Gunns is an Associate of nStratagem. We have a great deal of experience in helping leaders and organizations through their development and challenges. Contact us for a discreet discussion.

McVeigh, K.  (2014) Plebgate Row was Nonsense Incident, Police Officer Claims.  The Guardian [online].  19 November 2014.  Available from: [Accessed 18 August 2017].

** The views, information, words, concepts or opinions expressed in our blogs, articles and blog articles are solely the opinions of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of nStratagem, its employees or its affiliated companies.

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