Analyzing the Hidden Consequences of Undermining Standards

- english authority gradient decision making jenny lord leadership Jan 17, 2024

“It’s ok, you’re a really good diver so we can start your Divemaster training a little early. We’ll sign you off as a Rescue Diver as we’ll more than cover it all during the course”.

For anyone who’s been through this process, you will immediately see the problem. It is a prerequisite to be a Rescue Diver before starting Divemaster training. And yet some people ignore the standards.

Every industry has standards of some form, whether it’s Standard Operating Procedures, work instructions, an employee manual or a contract. These dictate not just what is to be done but normally also there is some degree of how it should be done. There is often a degree of difference between what the people who wrote the standards imagine the work will look like vs what actually happens.

This means that standards aren’t always followed, for various reasons.

Why does this happen….and what are the effects?

Ignoring standards is fairly common in diving. I have seen it myself, in many locations around the world. There are lots of reasons why it happens, from ignorance on the part of the instructor, to time pressure, complacency, course scheduling, money or a belief that the standards are wrong or unnecessary. It happens at all levels, from Open water to Instructor, to tech, rebreather and even cave courses. Some examples of things I’ve seen are:

  • Allowing the student to skip the mask skills as “they’re finding them too hard”.
  • Not completing a swim test, or ignoring the fact that the student is actually touching the bottom throughout it.
  • Not completing the navigation skills, as the student ended up too far away from a predetermined point they were supposed to reach.
  • Not finding a victim during a search pattern and having to be led to them by the instructor.
  • Allowing an instructor candidate to pass an Instructor Exam, despite them not seeing/solving the problem that the “student” was having.
  • Allowing a student to start a course despite not having completed the required previous course.
  • Getting another instructor that wasn’t present to sign off a student because the original wasn’t allowed to teach that course.
  • Skipping sections of theory because they ran out of time.

It seems that most people who are involved in the diving industry have similar stories. I have gone into more detail in other blogs about why these things happen but this time I’d like to look at the consequences.

There are two categories of consequences here- direct consequences and influencing behaviour.

Direct Consequences

These are the effects on the students themselves. If a student is unable to complete a skill by the end of a training course (but is still allowed to pass), that student has been badly let down by their instructor. There is a chance that they are now a danger to themselves and perhaps others. In the case of the student who couldn’t clear their mask, if that student ever got water in their mask (which is highly likely!) it is very possible that they may panic, putting both themselves and their buddy at risk. An instructor who can’t spot a student having a problem will certify students who can’t do certain skills or aren’t comfortable with them, putting that student in future danger. Not completing a prerequisite course prior to starting the next level means that student has potentially missed important information, and definitely missed out on gaining experience.

Influencing behaviour

These are the effects that the actions have had on others. When an instructor doesn’t require a student to complete a skill or prerequisite they are effectively saying to that student that it’s ok, that skill or prerequisite wasn’t important. There is an authority gradient between the student and the instructor, and most students look up to their instructors as someone to learn from. This doesn’t mean just the skills. An instructor's attitude is also passed on. The more people look up to that instructor, the more important it is for them to be aware of that. A highly experienced instructor will have newly qualified ones looking to them to see what decisions they make. If they see that experienced instructor allowing a student to start an open water course without completing a swim test, they are likely to follow suit. Dive centre managers will affect the culture of a centre and if they are seen using shortcuts then other instructors will see that’s acceptable and build them into their own teaching, especially if they see them without any context as to why the instructor is doing them. Even with context (for example, “we don’t have time for this skill, so we’ll miss it out for now”) others will use that context as a reason for their choices in the future.

People are naturally influenced by people they look up to or respect. The greater that respect, the greater the influence and the more likely people are to copy behaviour. That is even more significant when people have something to lose, so can feel under pressure to comply, such as the example I gave above when instructor A was pressured to sign off another student by instructor B who was then going to be teaching instructor A on a different course. In that case, A would have found it very difficult to say no, knowing that could affect the outcome of the course he was about to take (or certainly affect the attitude of instructor B when he was teaching A). Think about how this will affect A in the future. When the power dynamic is held by one person, it’s easy for that person to misuse the power. But if someone under them experiences this, it increases the likelihood that they will use the same techniques to people who will be influenced by them in the future.


As divers we should be aware that we are operating in an inhospitable environment. The consequences of most mistakes are fairly well known and will appear obvious (if you run out of gas you could die, if you don’t analyse your gas you could die etc etc.). But being aware of the indirect consequences of our actions is important if we want the future of the industry to be better. Even if you are a recreational diver who only dives solo, everytime you break a “standard” you are proving to yourself that you can get away with it, thereby giving yourself the permission to do it again.

Jenny is a full-time technical diving instructor and safety diver. Prior to diving, she worked in outdoor education for 10 years teaching rock climbing, white water kayaking and canoeing, sailing, skiing, caving and cycling, among other sports. Her interest in team development started with outdoor education, using it as a tool to help people learn more about communication, planning and teamwork.

Since 2009 she has lived in Dahab, Egypt teaching SCUBA diving. She is now a technical instructor trainer for TDI, advanced trimix instructor, advanced mixed gas CCR diver and helitrox CCR instructor.

Jenny has supported a number of deep dives as part of H2O divers dive team and works as a safety diver in the media industry.

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