It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble.
It’s what you know that just ain’t so. — Mark Twain
First Officer: We did something to the altitude!
Capt. Bob: What?
First Officer: We’re still at 2000—right?
Capt. Bob: Hey—what’s happening here!
Control tower: Eastern 401, I’ve lost you on radar—and your transponder. What is your altitude?
Pilot: Miami Approach, this is National 611. We just saw a big flash—looked like it was out west. Don’t know what it means, but we wanted to let you know.
Pilot: Lan Chile 451—we saw a big flash—a general flash, like some kind of explosion.
Capt. Bob Loft’s last words were spoken on approach to Miami International Airport on a clear December night with 10 flight attendants and 162 passengers on board. With 30,000 hours of flying experience, Bob piloted his airworthy Lockheed L-1011 (Eastern 401) into the Florida swamp in 1972. Pilots call this CFIT or Controlled Flight Into Terrain and it’s a leading cause of airplane accidents responsible for over 9,000 deaths in the history of aviation.
When you want something, whether it’s landing a passenger jet safely or asking for a raise from your boss, it helps to pay attention to your surroundings. That’s called situational awareness. It helps you get what you want, and it helps to practice. Practice will help you detect danger when it exists and dismiss the source when it poses no threat.
Better situational awareness would have saved the lives of the crew and passengers on Eastern flight 401. The pilot and first officer got wrapped up in solving a tempting little puzzle and lost sight of the big picture — flying the plane. The distraction? An indicator for the landing gear in the nose did not light up as expected.
Because the captain failed to delegate, everyone in the cockpit was involved in troubleshooting and flying the plane became an afterthought. In the middle of it all, First Officer Albert Stockstill noticed an increase in airspeed and assumed it to be an acceleration in level flight, but he should have checked to see whether the plane was accelerating in descent. As a result, he eased off the throttles making one of several deadly mistakes made by the crew.
Asking your boss for a raise seems harmless compared with piloting a passenger jet, but there are still potential dangers to your career. How’s your timing? Who are the real decision-makers? What’s on your boss’s mind and what is his decision-making process like? How is the company performing financially? How does your boss feel about your performance? What does your boss’s voice tone and posture tell you? Ask at the wrong time and place in the wrong way and you’ve just performed the equivalent of controlled flight into terrain with your job.
You develop and practice situational awareness by asking questions. Notice the questions above? You ask yourself the questions when the answers can be learned by observing and you ask others when you can’t learn the answers on your own.
Backup and you’ll see that the very first step is for you to believe that your awareness is incomplete, that what you don’t know is important. Then you will start asking more questions, listening more and paying closer attention to changes in the scenery. As you gather more information, you’ll find some clear-cut situations where additional information will point to better decisions and more successful outcomes. However, more information won’t always lead you to obvious answers.
Fortunately, when you are paying attention to your surroundings, often your body and your subconscious mind will know things you can’t put into words. Trust your gut – listening to those gut feelings is an important part of developing situational awareness.
Situational awareness requires practice so it won’t interfere with your activities or your performance. Until it becomes second nature, it will be uncomfortable and may get in the way. Practice is about getting through your day relaxed but aware and only shifting gears into focused awareness when you perceive threats.
Ultimately, situational awareness is not just about getting a raise from your boss. It’s a critical ingredient for working smart and exercising good judgment. Without it, you’ll always be the one in your group that needs babysitting. With it, you’ll be the one your boss relies on and promotes.
In fact, author Mike Spick asserted in his book about air combat that good situational awareness is “the ace factor.” He concluded that the top-scoring aces of World War I and II typically avoided high confusion entanglements preferring to pick off stragglers. They succeeded through awareness of their own limitations and by keeping out of situations they could not cope with – essentially good situational awareness.
How to develop better situational awareness (developed by the military and aviators):
- cross-train on group members’ tasks – learn your coworkers’ jobs
- discover the mindsets and motivations of group members
- use checklists for tasks and keep them up-to-date
- get briefed on internal meetings you can’t attend
- spot-check your group’s activities
- monitor public communication traffic
- listen to information that is not directly relevant to your group
- cross-talk with other small groups
- develop strong communication with your boss and other higher-ups
- get shift changeover briefs
- develop technical proficiencies
- shadow a senior group member when you are new
- learn the mission, functions, and intricacies of groups above yours
- brief your leader more often with progress reports
- share experience and information
- if you are a leader, avoid handling technician duties
- make sure the correct group leaders are participating in discussions/events
- check information within the team
- communicate relevant information to others
- coordinate activities with other small groups
Pay attention to signs that you are losing your situational awareness:
- information from two or more sources doesn’t agree
- fixation on one thing to the exclusion of everything else
- confusion or bafflement and possible anxiety about a situation
- failure to look around – everyone has their heads down
- failure to meet checkpoints or milestones on plan
- failure to adhere to standard operating procedures
- failure to comply with expectations or limitations
- failure to resolve discrepancies
- existence of unresolved personal conflicts
- communication is partial and ineffective with vague or incomplete statements
- task saturation – when you lack a plan or you are unprepared, small surprises can overload you quickly
- physical stress – hunger, temperature, noise, fatigue, and lack of physical endurance
- mental stress – workload, death, divorce, demotion, and economic factors
- rebelliousness – when you don’t like to be told what to do you overlook rules and procedures designed to protect you
- impulsiveness – when faced with a decision, the need to do something, anything right away
- invulnerability – thinking that “it won’t happen to me.”
- macho – feeling the need to prove you’re better than others
- resignation – feeling that everything is out of your hands and chalking it up to luck
Know what happens when you experience stress (due to chance, poor planning or lack of preparation which causes demands on you to exceed your ability):
- omission — you let things drop by failing to respond to important signals
- error — you make mistakes
- queuing — you delay some things you can’t handle
- approximation — you accept lower standards of performance
- fixation — you concentrate on one item while ignoring another
- regression — you revert to an earlier procedure or action
- tremor — you tremble or shake from increased tension
- escape — you give up, panic or freeze
In an emergency, remember this:
- stay calm — think for a moment, weigh the alternatives and choose one
- remember that fear and panic are your greatest enemies
- don’t hesitate to declare an emergency
- let other people know about your situation
- don’t delay until it is too late
- move around, get some air, stretch your arms and legs
- if you make a mistake that you were able to correct, forget about it and focus on what comes next
- focus on the situation, not the emotion
- always have a “plan” and a “backup plan” and leave yourself an “out”
Finally, thanks to Verne Harnish for reminding us to consider Amundsen’s philosophy:
You don’t wait until you’re in an unexpected storm to discover that you need more strength and endurance. You don’t wait until you’re shipwrecked to determine if you can eat raw dolphin. You don’t wait until you’re on the Antarctic journey to become a superb skier and dog handler. You prepare with intensity, all the time, so that when conditions turn against you, you can draw from a deep reservoir of strength (knowledge). And equally, you prepare so that when conditions turn in your favor, you can strike hard.
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