Leadership Skills Pt. 2: Situational Awareness

How leaders can increase effectiveness by developing Situational Awareness (SA), in everyday interactions with teams.

“Situation Awareness (SA) is the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status.”

This is our picture mentally of what is going on around us. According to psychologist Mica Endsley, SA has 3 levels:

·      Perception- pick up information and cues from our environment

·      Comprehension-put those pieces of information together to develop an idea of what is going on

·      Anticipation-predict what might happen next.

In a dynamic situation, SA is embedded in a loop where the environment affects SA and decisions made under a particular level of SA affect the environment.

Cultivating SA in the workplace is much about pausing, asking, assessing, and then planning your moves based on desired or expected outcomes. 

West Point Cadets are taught SA, as it represents one aspect of tactical decision-making. In a fast-moving and high-stakes environment such as a soldier or law enforcement officer facing a shoot, don’t shoot situation, engineering psychologists have discovered three levels of cognition needed for making a fast and accurate decision.

·      Level I SA, which is accurately perceiving critical elements of the situation.

·      Level II SA, which involves comprehending the meaning of what is perceived.

·      Level III SA, which is the ability to make quick and accurate decisions on what is likely to occur next in a dynamic, evolving scenario.

In response to the waffle house shooting in Nashville, TN in 2018 that killed 4 people, the Oregon state police amended their situational awareness policy.

They now advise that if faced with a gunman, it’s important to know your surroundings, spot places to hide and identify objects you could use to defend yourself.

Another example of the importance to build the skills of SA intentionally is the Invisible Gorilla experiment by Chabris & Simons. Participants with the experiment are asked to count how many times a team passes a basketball. There are 2 teams, one wearing black shirts, the other wearing white shirts. We are counting how many times the team wearing white passes the ball. Over half of the participants who watch the video do not notice a large black gorilla walks through the group during the video. The positive here is that we focus our attention on a specific task. The negative here is that the gorilla is unexpected, and we are effectively blind to its presence. Our attention to one task blinds us. We see what we expect to see and are convinced that what we are aware of is all that there is to see. Our brains take in so much information filtering the large amount of input, digesting the information.

How do we develop SA? Tactical Hyve notes we need to detect a baseline of normal based on the following being mindful of our surroundings.

·       Noise level

·       Smells

·       Lighting level

·       Movement patterns of patrons and staff

·       Activities of patrons

·       The way people are dressed

·       The mood of the people

It’s important to note any shifts or changes in normal patterns. Notice your team, their mood, hygiene, engagement in team activities, general attitude. Have you ever had an employee’s performance drop? Did you explore what could be occurring in their lives situationally that could be a factor in the decline of engagement and/or productivity? Or did you provide discipline for the behavior itself? A key aspect of motivation is human behavior. We respond better to management techniques that focus on strengths, encourage us, with ongoing authentic feedback. If we have a good relationship with our employees, we will be able to notice when they are off their baseline. The most natural part of any relationship is to ask how they are doing and probe a little with ‘I notice you are ________,’ filling in the blank with the behavior change you notice. When there is trust in a relationship, we are able to communicate our needs with safety psychologically.

Situational Awareness (SA) is only the second of 8 skills in our series on Leadership Skills. The first was Self-Awareness. Our most seasoned leaders today recognize they need to continually develop these skills intentionally to be effective leaders. Stay tuned as we will be sharing soon about our next skill, communication.