What is ‘situational awareness’?
Jillian Horton, a Canadian internist and writer describes situational awareness as:
“...a learned ability to notice and interpret what is happening around us so we are prepared for what might happen next. Critically, it also allows us to anticipate and navigate common thinking and behaviour traps. The latter is especially important because our situational awareness in emergencies can be unduly influenced by the behaviour – including the under-reactivity – of those around us.”
Why are people situationally unaware, and what behaviours are common?
Ms Horton explains:
“Some of the answer is rooted in our wiring. Our behavioural responses are both learned and dependent on our environment, and when we encounter unfamiliar situations we often revert to a default setting: looking at what others are doing. We’re aware of the pandemic, but because people around us aren’t wearing masks, we’re tricked into thinking that what they’re doing must be right.”
“...our perceptions can also be heavily influenced by what we want to be true – a cognitive misstep known as affective error.’ It’s the inability of a person to ‘...recognize or label their experiences as an emergency and, as a result, (be) unprepared for the consequences.”
So, situationally unaware individuals don’t label unexpected events that start to impact them as emergencies and as a result are unprepared for what could happen to them; in unfamiliar circumstances they look to the crowd around them for the right way forward and they don’t want to believe that there is a calamity likely to befall them.
I think there is a striking parallel between what she discusses as the vulnerability we all face through a lack of situational awareness particularly in the current COVID environment, and the jeopardy leaders pose to their organizations when functional situational awareness skills are not present.
What leaders can do to improve their situational awareness?
Emergency mind set
“...people in charge must be able to label what they are experiencing ‘...as an emergency” so they can prepare themselves for the consequences. Leaders must be alert and highly sensitive to forces around them that could have drastic consequences on their organizations if they play out the way they ultimately could.
There are several challenges leaders face to prepare themselves to spot a potentially cataclysmic event that could ruin their organization and to call it what it is.
Leaders generally delegate most of the ‘spotting’ responsibility to others so they never have their finger directly on the pulse of what’s going on in their environment; they rarely are able to feel the power of events afflicting them. Leaders must shed the traditional notion of delegation and take on a more active role in reading and evaluating the ongoing changes impacting them.
And they need to use the ‘emergency’ label when they feel the impending changes could have severe consequences on their business and stop underplaying the importance of the unexpected.
They don’t have to ‘cry wolf’ constantly but shouldn’t be afraid to call it when the consequences could be dire. No plaudits are given to the leader who avoids ‘overkill’ because they don’t want to raise unnecessary concern among investors and employees but pushes their organization over the cliff because they didn’t.
Ring the alarm bell when you think trouble’s brewing, and prepare for what could happen if you’re right — Roy, bell ringer
“...when we encounter unfamiliar situations we often revert to a default setting: looking at what others are doing. This concept is known as social proof. We’re aware of the pandemic, but because people around us aren’t wearing masks, we’re tricked into thinking that what they’re doing must be right.”
Leaders absolutely cannot be influenced by those around them and assume that the appropriate response to the emergency is to do what the crowd around them does. This is what I would call benchmarking on steroids because of the likelihood in this instance that copying kills.
Copying best in class organizations is too commonplace in organizations today and it is encouraged by leadership. Unfortunately it’s disguised as innovation when in fact it’s anything but that. It’s a lazy way of deciding how to rise to a challenge a leader faces.
One choice is to scour the landscape for an organization that has found an effective solution and try to adopt it; the second choice is to observe what others have done and morph their approaches into something that uniquely works for you.
Leaders should be encouraged to discover a solution that has their organization’s fingerprints on it; that fits their circumstances like a glove because this is the only way to be more confident in the results that can be expected.
They shouldn’t be ‘tricked’ into believing that the way some other organization addresses a problem is right for you. Adopting someone else’s solution and expecting that it will effectively work for you is nonsense — and it’s irresponsible.
Crowd observation and following their lead simply increases the crowd size and momentum for the wrong solution — Roy, make the default YOU!
“...our perceptions can also be heavily influenced by what we want to be true – a cognitive misstep known as affective error.”
So, maybe the sniffles are just allergies and maybe a low grade fever is just a cold. Yup. That’s it. I’m ok regardless of what’s going on around me.
Leaders face this situation all the time. A major client leaves for a competitor; customer service results are on a 90-day downward trend; new customer acquisition costs are 25% over budget and revenues are trending below plan.
And the behaviour I observe more often than not is to treat the situation as an aberration; something — a blip — that doesn’t have to be taken seriously because it more likely will correct itself in the coming months or years.
It’s a wait-and-see attitude that leaders take because they don’t want to believe that their plan is flawed and that they are actually witnessing its imperfection.
The leader’s affective error is that they want the plan to succeed and therefore they don’t believe the facts when they suggest otherwise — Roy, face the facts
In this instance leaders must face the truth based on the facts presented to them. To wish them away based on some altruistic notion that they can will their truth to happen isn’t just bad leadership, it’s deadly to employees and shareholders.
Situational awareness learnings for the leader
- Call any significant negative discontinuity an emergency to get you leaning into the potential consequences rather than away from them
- Never think that the crowd knows what’s best for you; letting those around you taint your reaction to an emergency is irresponsible and potentially deadly
- Listen to the facts; not your heart. React to what IS true rather to what you would LIKE to be true.