The Single Most Important Leadership Skill for 2021
In an emergency room, a physician might need to change course when working a patient experiences complications, for instance, and direct his medical staff accordingly
In periods of war, military generals must constantly revise their approaches based on the personalities and strengths of their units. They also need to change course depending on the challenges and unexpected scenarios they encounter.
Situational Awareness is a concept that has been around in aviation, healthcare and the military for many years. It is the distinction between a person (or system) and the environment. Situational awareness is the accurate perception and understanding of all the factors and conditions that exist around you.
700 Feet per Second Awareness
One of the roles of an F-16 pilot is to lead a strike force into enemy territory while sniffing out and destroying enemy radars and surface-to-air missiles. In the cockpit, one pilot manages all aspects of the process:
- flying the aircraft by outside visual references while operating at more than 700 feet per second.
- monitoring three screens (enemy radar detection; friendly and enemy aircraft; and weather/navigation).
- detecting and eliminating enemy threats with on-board weapons
Given what these pilots do in task-saturated life and death situations, it would seem easy for the rest of us to have good situational awareness while sitting in a meeting with our boss and peers.
Situational awareness can be learned through practice. Knowing how you will respond to situations as they arise is good. Being able to read the environment to predict threats and opportunities is what sets the great leaders apart. So what can leaders do to be more situationally aware?
- Know yourself - You may ask: What does this have to do with situational awareness? Evaluating your strengths, challenges (weaknesses), and natural leadership tendencies will help you understand how you tend to respond to situations. Leaders with high EI who can recognize their own and other's emotions exhibit stronger situational awareness.
- Know the Situation - Examine your response at work with your teams, manager and your client. Is your tendency to dominate or withdraw? How could you better manage your styles and behaviour and engage to respond more effectively, especially now that most conversations are virtual.
(Go to Gemba is a tool that has its origin in lean management and refers to being where things happen. The main point of Go to Gemba is that you can only recognize an issue to its full extend when you see it with your own eyes. One of the key assumptions behind this approach is that all information you don’t get first-hand is somehow biased, incomplete or lacking detail. As a consequence, you need to have a look at the issue with your own eyes to really know what is going on. This makes Go to Gemba a method to improve situational awareness)
- Be Proactive in Your Thinking - Set aside your own emotions or thoughts in the moment, and think about others and consider what might be going on with them in certain situations. Ask good questions to gain more insight. Then, coach yourself to respond in the most effective and appropriate way.
An “eyes-wide-open” approach to those we work with every day must be a conscious effort of every leader.
Team Situation Awareness
Successful leaders instill a mind-set of shared situation awareness in their teams at all times. ‘Shared Situation Awareness’ is a concept, where in addition, each team member has the same shared situation awareness where it is needed for their role (i.e. not sharing everything, only that which is necessary when goals overlap).
When teams are dispersed, from both each other and their managers, one significant risk is that emergent problems on the frontline may not be visible. Developing a structure to ensure updates are timely, sorted, and prioritized can be a leader’s greatest tool, particularly when the facts on the ground are changing rapidly.
Situational awareness and continuous improvement
One of the key objectives of situational awareness is error identification and prevention. In a similar way situational awareness can contribute to the continuous improvement process in teams and organizations on two levels.
First, improved situational awareness can help to identify issues before negative consequences emerge. Second, the concept helps to go through a structured learning process and identify situations which could have been avoided with a proper level of situational awareness. This makes situational awareness a management tool to drive organizational learning.
Many leaders approach situations having only thought about their needs. In my experience, cultivating this situational awareness mind-set in the workplace is much about pausing, asking, assessing, and then planning your moves based on desired or expected outcomes. Don’t run a meeting where you’ve not figured out the psychology of the situation and how to adapt to or adjust it!