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What’s Your Situational Awareness?

by David Brock on November 6th, 2013

Talk to anyone in the military about tactics, a topic that comes up very quickly is situational awareness.   There are a lot of technical definitions, but in it’s simplest form, situational awareness is about “paying attention to what’s happening around you.”

As a consultant, I have the opportunity to observe a lot of things that happen.  I go on calls with sales people, listen in on phone calls, sit in all sorts of meetings–team meetings, reviews, coaching sessions, and other things.

I’m constantly amazed at how bad most of us are in “situational awareness.”

It may be the fidgeting customer, that individual that clearly doesn’t have the time or desire to speak, is just being polite, but just want to get rid of you.

Maybe it’s the people sitting in a presentation, their hands are below the table, their eyes directed downward, clearly they are paying attention to their smart device and not what is happening in the meeting.  Yet the sales person plows on through the deck of 275 meaningless slides.

Or it may be the tough meeting with a manager where both the manager and the sales person are talking past each other, each getting more frustrated, each getting more angry, neither accomplishing anything.

The absence of situational awareness happens when we fail to pay attention to what’s going on around us.  We aren’t paying attention to or reading the obvious signals.  We are so focuses on our own objectives, we are blind to what’s really happening.

Sometimes, we sense something might be wrong, but refuse to recognize it.  We want things to be a certain way, so we interpret all the signals and cues in that context.  For example, we want the customer to like us, but just because they are politely meeting with us doesn’t mean they do.  Wishful thinking causes us to disregard the signals we are seeing, moving forward blindly.

Sometimes our focus is so narrow that we miss the surrounding cues.  ( This is sometimes called target fixation.)  We may be concentrating on one person in a meeting, missing the signals and body language of others.  Sometimes, it’s focusing on one aspect of what the customer may have told us, ignoring everything else.

Situational awareness is critical to our effectiveness and our ability to connect with those around us–our customers, our colleagues, our managers.

Some think of situational awareness as the ability to “read a room.”  To some it’s “street smarts.”  Empathy is very helpful in situational awareness.

One of the things we miss in situational awareness is that we are always part of the situation.  (The physicist in me wants to call it the “Newton’s Third Law Of Situations.”)

There are things going on in every situation, whether it’s a sales call, a meeting, or even thinking more broadly about a deal that are independent of us.  We can observe these things, developing and executing strategies to address them.

But then we become part of the situation.  What we do impacts the situation.  How we interpret what we observe impacts our assessment of the situation.  We may not be hearing what’s really being said.  We may not see what’s really happening.  Our own behavioral styles impact our ability to correctly assess a situation.

We’ve all seen it, one person says “black,”  all the other person hears is “white.”  Our own communication and behavioral styles impact our ability to correctly assess and address situations.  We don’t hear what is being said, we put our own filters on the communication, perhaps completely missing what’s going on.

I’m “coaching” a couple of very senior executives in just this issue.  They are each very smart and successful.  But they just aren’t communicating with each other.  I listen to what one is saying, the other is hearing something completely different than what is really being said……and vice versa.

It’s completely unconscious, they don’t realize they are doing this.  They are sincerely trying to communicate with each other, but aren’t –because their own behavioral style impacts their abilities to “hear” what’s really being said.

Situational awareness is critical if we want to accomplish anything—whether it’s with our customers, our colleagues, our subordinates, our managers.

We have to constantly be aware of what’s really going, on.  We have to open our eyes, ears, all our senses, to observe what’s happening—in the situation, in the overall deal.  We have to understand all the pieces/parts and what’s going on.

We have to see things as they are, not as we wish them to be.  Confronting reality, however bad it might be, is the only way we can develop strategies to successfully address the situation.

We have to avoid tunnel vision.  We have to avoid being too focused–concentrating only on one part of the situation, but being blind to the things that are surrounding it.

Finally, we have to be aware of how our own behavioral and communications styles may be blinding us to reality.

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3 Comments
  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    Dave, This is a real piece of synchronicity as I spent the morning preparing a Sales Kick Off on……………
    “Situational Awareness”

    My take is a bit different from yours, I may even Blog it!

    Great Topic!

  2. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Dave, this is one of my favorite topics – “situational analysis”. As far as the military goes since I have been befriended by my friends in the military I have learned invaluable insights from the best leaders in the world! (Who is leading the relief effort in The Philippines – The US Marines) It always amazes me how much we can learn from “Leadership Lessons from the Military”. In fact the Harvard Business Review wrote articles on how much we can learn – November 10. My military friends and leaders (many in history books or train authentic warriors aka Navy SEALs) know how to lead, take action with consequences, be accountable, develop trust, take calculated risks, understand teamwork and understand accomplish missions with courage! In fact, I have teamed up with my military friends to impart their leadership culture, attitudes and behaviors into the civilian world. It may reduce the amount of inaction, unnecessary meetings, half ass leadership, bloated egos, poor strategy decisions, lack of team work and poor communication I see that may be all to common in corporate America. What does everyone else think?

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