The importance of “situational awareness” in an organisational context.

April 8, 2021

Just over two years ago, I attended a training course on “situational awareness”. Its purpose was to keep me safe on business trips so that I didn’t become the victim of crime or kidnapping as I travelled around the Middle East for work.

The course was run by former military personnel and was excellent. You are taught to be constantly vigilant in the environment you are in and never to take anything for granted. Understanding the risk profiles of areas/places you visit, recognising different cultural norms and observing the behaviour of people around you are just some of the aspects of “situational awareness” that can help to keep you safe. Whilst there was a lot more to the course than this, I soon began to recognise that “situational awareness” could have a wider application beyond the stated goals of the course. The main realisation related to the fact that the technique/strategy could well be used by individuals to better understand the changing organisational dynamics of their own workplace. This in turn could be particularly beneficial for those seeking to build a career in their organisation as progression is not just about competences and knowledge but how you are viewed by influencers.

Organisations are run by cohorts of individuals. The composition of the cohort is rarely static and as it evolves, so do many aspects of an organisation’s strategy and culture. Understanding who the decision makers are and what makes them tick is important. The relationships you have with others in any business especially key influencers can be a determinant of success or failure as much as poor performance.

In 30 years of mainstream of HR, I cannot count the number of times I have heard people say that “I don’t do politics”. This statement fails to understand that organisations are based on relationships and these relationships are linked to stated and unstated powerplays between individuals. By using the techniques of “situational awareness” to really understand what is happening around you, you will help gain a clearer insight into everything from how policies are formulated to who really can influence outcomes e.g. the PAs for CEOs may ultimately hold the position of PA but they can have a greater influence than you might think if they have the ear of the CEO. “Situational awareness” instils in you the imperative not to take anything for granted. It encourages you to watch the interactions between different individuals and to use your powers of observation to understand what is really going on.

Being aware of what is happening around you can certainly help keep you safe in unfamiliar places when you travel on business trips. However, of equal if not greater importance, it can also bring you the understanding you need to navigate through the relationships in your own workplace. My 10 years in the legal sector highlighted on many occasions how it was a failure of some lawyers to understand organisational dynamics that hindered their applications for Partnership. If existing Partners did not know who you were but your elevation to Partnership was dependant on a vote by existing Partners, you could say that this lack of “situational awareness” was likely to be an impediment to success.

All things can be deadly to us, even the things made to serve us; as in nature walls can kill us, and stairs can kill us, if we do not walk circumspectly.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Chris Lipscomb is the COO of Blue Pencil Legal and the former HR Director of Al Tamimi, the largest regional law firm in the Middle East.