Develop Situational Awareness
When we find ourselves driving on an icy road, our attention to detail becomes acute. We see every dark patch on the roadway and game plan how we will respond if our wheels were to slip or slide. We accept that the threat of losing control is real and focus our attention and actions to avoid a bad outcome.
Experts on decision-making call this “situational awareness.” Situational awareness allows leaders to pinpoint exactly what issues are emerging and attend to them before they spin out of control. They can then hit the brakes or the accelerator, as needed.
Some emerging elements need to be amplified, while others need to be diffused or rerouted. Leaders who teach themselves to be more situationally aware enhance team effectiveness by nipping issues in the bud and doubling down on opportunities. They make better short-term decisions. That maximizes long-term team effectiveness.
So, how does a leader develop the skill of situational awareness? It’s as much a mindset as it is a skill. Leaders begin by frequently assessing what issues or elements are at play in any given situation. Comprehending what issues will be important in the future (including the next few minutes) is at the crux of this assessment.
A focus on details as they emerge is mandatory in this mindset. Think roadway ice. The second step is to project the current situation into the near future. What ideas will be on the table at the next meeting? What disagreements will create conflicts? What remarks might offend or insult? What advocacy will persuade others? What actions might motivate or inspire? All of these demonstrate the practice of situational awareness.
Proof is in the pudding, as they say. Leaders must continually get better at identifying the critical issues and elements and predicting how they will play out within the team. The more a leader practices, the better they get. The time to work on improving your situational awareness is in the next team discussion. Be sure to see the ice.
I would separate situational awareness into two components: 1) Vigilance - the ability to detect what is going on around you; and 2) Decision making - what you ultimately do with the information at hand. Vigilance seems to be hardwired in people and thus harder to develop. However, decision-making is a skill that people can learn and through practice get better at fairly quickly. In my experience, these two components are not highly correlated with each other.
I first started my career conducting job analyses for The Gas Company in Los Angeles during the late 90s and early 00's. Vigilance turned out to be an important predictor in job performance. High vigilance was required for power plant operators, heavy equipment operators, even meter readers (watch out for dogs, don't get hit by cars) but not for jobs that required more specific focus and attention a single tasks such as pipefitters, welders, billing clerks, and drafters.