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A critical ingredient in working smart and exercising good judgment


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):

  1. cross-train on group members’ tasks – learn your coworkers’ jobs
  2. discover the mindsets and motivations of group members
  3. use checklists for tasks and keep them up-to-date
  4. get briefed on internal meetings you can’t attend
  5. spot-check your group’s activities
  6. monitor public communication traffic
  7. listen to information that is not directly relevant to your group
  8. cross-talk with other small groups
  9. develop strong communication with your boss and other higher-ups
  10. get shift changeover briefs
  11. develop technical proficiencies
  12. shadow a senior group member when you are new
  13. learn the mission, functions, and intricacies of groups above yours
  14. brief your leader more often with progress reports
  15. share experience and information
  16. if you are a leader, avoid handling technician duties
  17. make sure the correct group leaders are participating in discussions/events
  18. check information within the team
  19. communicate relevant information to others
  20. coordinate activities with other small groups

Pay attention to signs that you are losing your situational awareness:

  1. information from two or more sources doesn’t agree
  2. fixation on one thing to the exclusion of everything else
  3. confusion or bafflement and possible anxiety about a situation
  4. failure to look around – everyone has their heads down
  5. failure to meet checkpoints or milestones on plan
  6. failure to adhere to standard operating procedures
  7. failure to comply with expectations or limitations
  8. failure to resolve discrepancies
  9. existence of unresolved personal conflicts
  10. communication is partial and ineffective with vague or incomplete statements

I didnKnow what kills situational awareness:

  1. task saturation – when you lack a plan or you are unprepared, small surprises can overload you quickly
  2. physical stress – hunger, temperature, noise, fatigue, and lack of physical endurance
  3. mental stress – workload, death, divorce, demotion, and economic factors
  4. rebelliousness – when you don’t like to be told what to do you overlook rules and procedures designed to protect you
  5. impulsiveness – when faced with a decision, the need to do something, anything right away
  6. invulnerability – thinking that “it won’t happen to me.”
  7. macho – feeling the need to prove you’re better than others
  8. 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):

  1. omission — you let things drop by failing to respond to important signals
  2. error — you make mistakes
  3. queuing — you delay some things you can’t handle
  4. approximation — you accept lower standards of performance
  5. fixation — you concentrate on one item while ignoring another
  6. regression — you revert to an earlier procedure or action
  7. tremor — you tremble or shake from increased tension
  8. escape — you give up, panic or freeze

In an emergency, remember this:

  1. stay calm — think for a moment, weigh the alternatives and choose one
  2. remember that fear and panic are your greatest enemies
  3. don’t hesitate to declare an emergency
  4. let other people know about your situation
  5. don’t delay until it is too late
  6. move around, get some air, stretch your arms and legs
  7. if you make a mistake that you were able to correct, forget about it and focus on what comes next
  8. focus on the situation, not the emotion
  9. 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.

Get the ebook! If you liked what you read here, and think you may want to refer back to this guide later, grab the Kindle version – we’re hoping you’ll thank us with a five-star review on Amazon if you found this material helpful. The ebook also includes our job search guide.

For comprehensive advice on the entire job search process, read our complete guide to landing a job at a great company or visit our career advice hub.

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  • Useful discussion ! Coincidentally if you are requiring a TSP-3 , my friend saw a template document here http://goo.gl/1qaGRM

  • As a current veteran, and former active duty service member, raises were never part of the equation. Our pay is federal law and related to two things; rank and time in service. The information on raises was really helpful and walked through the nuances of civilian careers. Thanks for putting this together!

  • I actually nearly got my job’s equivalent of a promotion due to situational awareness. I work as a permanent seasonal worker for Honey Baked Ham, which means that I’m kept on the roster of employees, but I only work when seasonal hires are brought in. The fact that I was kept on in this way was due to situational awareness, but I nearly also got promoted to a part-time legitimate worker. (The funds just weren’t there to bring me on, though they really seemed to want to.)

    What I did? First off, I was trained on pretty much every station. I knew the basics of pretty much everything in the back, and I could comfortably perform five of seven of the basic jobs in the back. This was just simply paying attention.

    Two, I VOLUNTEERED to help people with their stations. If I didn’t have any work to do or they were getting too far behind that we would have to stop production, I would let myself get backed up for a little while while I assisted someone else with what they were doing. And, I was even able to catch up after I got back to my actual assignment.

    Three, I didn’t have to ask if I could do this. After the first day, my boss and I had such strong mutual respect for each other that I took care of what needed to be done, and he trusted me to do it without messing it up. I would ask permission on things I don’t usually do, and I would keep him informed on what I was doing, but I tried to help him do his job by doing mine and helping my coworkers.

    This “helping him do his job” part is where it gets even better. I had gotten to the point where I cared more about efficiency than about whose job it was. Even when it came to critiquing people’s work or making sure that people had supplies that they needed (such as boxes of containers for turkeys). I was one of the people who put the pretty gold wrappers on the hams, so based on the way the back was set up, I had a perfect spot to observe the other stations. If it wasn’t something I could do myself, I asked my boss to do it.

    This isn’t always something that you can do with a boss, though. He mentioned this when we were talking about my performance, this kind of behavior can scare some managers, so this is only a sort of behavior that you can do if you are sure of what you’re doing. If you try to do his job and do it wrong, then you could get let go or reprimanded. If you do it right, you help the boss out, which proves you to be an asset.

  • Easy to relate to. Sometimes getting caught in the details allows for one to forget the bigger picture. I have time and time again found myself lost in work and so focused on the work within that I forget to ensure that the document that I’ve sent matches the title of the most recent version. Even more recently, I’ve realized that I’m losing physical objects because of my lack of focus on the bigger picture. Attempting to juggle so many things in my life have led to a delay in responding to urgent messages, misplacing a right glove, and losing my apartment key.

  • In general, what this is discussing is to be prepared and be aware of your surroundings. You have to be on top of things in order to be efficient and to gain respect from others. This is very relatable for me in that I always have the tendency to be one step ahead of everyone else. I don’t like to fall behind on what I am expected to do. If this does happen, I often lose my way. I must always keep a planner to remind myself what I need to do, and if I don’t understand something, I ask others around me or my superiors for clarification. If I didn’t do any of these tasks, I would most likely be behind schedule or feel like things aren’t going the way I had hoped, and I try to avoid this in any way possible.

  • I have always had a knack for pensive observation. I say this in no way to boast that I am the best, or even great at it, however my history has seen me favored me at the correct moments.

    I joined the Army not-so-long-ago, and while I received a very nice score on my ASVAB (A general military aptitude test) and so it appeared that I would be able to pick any job I wanted. I was born in England however, and had immigrated to the United States when i was 5, and thus could only hold positions where I would not be around military secrets. I became an Army Truck Driver. You may have re-read that first little paragraph, but bear with me because the stories not over.

    I completed my training, and while I didn’t particularly excel in truck driving, I was diligent and did what I was told. I was fortunate to receive a posting in South Korea (I was interested in seeing the world).

    Now in my first unit I did what I always do, and surveyed my position. Our unit had a small group in charge of computers, radios, etc. Essentially the techies of my group. I knew that I would end up there from the first day I saw them.

    It took me a year for my opportunity, but when the soldiers in this section were changing duty stations, I just happened to be helping the newest member of this section with his computer. His suggestion brought me into the platoon that the communications section was in. Several more such scenarios would see me promoted and put as the leader in charge of the communications section (after I had received my citizenship).

    Patience is a terribly hard thing for me. But James Allen put it best when he said:

    “In all human affairs there are efforts and there are results, and the strength of the effort is the measure of the result.”

    The efforts put into maintaining patience pay off, and it is pivotal to remember this always.

  • I am going to print this out and post this at work! Because of the environment I work in, I feel the stress factors come into play more than most, and have the greatest toll on performance. Considering a 12 hr day of physically intensive work, coupled with the mentally sharp requirements of the animal hospital, stress is just another elements of the job. Learning how to cope with it effectively, I know will improve my personal performance, and I can’t wait to share this with my co-workers!

  • As a perfectionist, I cringe at making mistakes and often spend inordinate amounts of time on unnecessary details. As a student, my quest for perfection often leads to stress over striving for a perfect GPA, or the perfect words to put into a paper. This article, which points out the importance of the bigger picture, reminds me of a short story my high school math teacher told me about maintaining perspective in my goals in life. 
    “Pretend you are a hungry monkey in the jungle. One day, you pass by a steel-barred cage that has a big banana in it. You reach your hand into the cage to retrieve the banana, but your hand is stuck: when it is clenched around the banana, it cannot pass through the bars of the cage. After trying for a time to get both your hand and banana out of the cage, you notice a predator approaching. You have two options– drop the banana and flee, saving your life, or continue attempting to retrieve the banana from the cage, putting your life in harm’s way unnecessarily.” 

    The point of the story is that the ending is completely up to you– sometimes situations in life are beyond your control, and you are forced to “drop the banana” and move on for the better. It is important to keep the bigger picture in perspective. 

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