How Shared Situational Awareness can Make or Crush your Future

In this episode you will recognise dysfunctions observed in your business, organisation or team and be able to remedy them relatively easily and quickly.

But first, let me share a moment in my own life when my personal situational awareness was severely compromised:
I was teetering on the edge of the abyss, the breeze felt like it was gently mocking and luring me over the cliff and down to the unwelcoming rocks beneath. It was so tempting to just let gravity take charge and give over to the fate of failure.

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I snapped out from the dangerous thinking and checked my wrist computer. I’d stayed too long hovering here, I needed to return to the surface before the poisonous nitrogen made me lose all perspective. I pressed a tiny blast of air into my jacket to lift me upward to the waiting boat.

Scuba diving is a tremendous example of having complete situational awareness

Scuba diving is a tremendous example of having complete situational awareness: To enjoy the experience, you need to be trained and be completely aware of everything that is going on with you, your buddy, other divers, the creatures of the deep, your depth, your air, the time, your breathing. Oh, and watch out for that Conga eel lurking protectively under that rock. And is that a white tip or a tiger shark in the distance?

And because you never dive alone, that situational awareness needs to be shared with your buddy and everyone else in the water with you.

Scuba diving has the potential to show you the most awesome creatures and places on this beautiful planet and the potential to crush you. We all have, within us, that same potential. To show the world something awesome or to crush ourselves into insignificance.

So what was happening to me as I teetered on the edge of that abyss being tempted to slip over the edge and dive down deep when my conscious mind should be screaming at me to avoid such danger? Why had my mind slipped into some sort of reverie — an almost dreamlike momentary lapse of concentration?

The Five components of effective teams are integrated and together create this thing we call “synergy”.

Performance issues in teams are rooted in one or more of five distinct areas:

  1. The first is the command instruction(s) for the team.
  2. The second is shared experience.
  3. Third (and most neglected) is shared situational awareness
  4. shared values. and lastly
  5. Effective and engaging communication

In each area, there are common key issues. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the symptoms, just an overview of the top and most frequently uncovered issues.

  1. A lack of clear direction, which can be a lack of clarity and, or lack of direction. Frequently, there are team leadership roles missing within the team.
  2. The team themselves may function reasonably well, but without leadership, they falter under pressure. Just watch any football or rugby match when the skipper is injured or sent off.
  3. Many teams work in silos, individuals or small groups working independently from the others. Sharing little information, knowledge or expertise. This situation is often exacerbated by unhealthy rivalry between team members or sub groups.
  4. The third, and often neglected factor of team cohesiveness is, shared situational awareness.
  5. Team members may cooperate, but they do not collaborate. Essentially, team members can be nice enough to each other and say that they agree, but their actions defy their words.
  6. Many teams have something of a blame culture. This is when individuals give as much or even, more time, covering their own backsides, and when anything goes wrong, it is always someone else who is to blame.
  7. Shared values are the foundation of any team. Whether it is the pride in representing country, or the simple desire to make every single day your masterpiece. When personal values are in conflict with the presumed shared values, the personal values will win out every time. When a footballer’s livelihood depends on his performance in the EPL next month and nothing to do with doing his best for his national side, selfishness will win out. That, sadly, is pretty well all teams.
  8. Often, the team has not learned how to communicate internally. Individuals do not share their context, or inform other members of changes that are pertinent.

What’s the glue for teams?

Knowing your goals, having the right experience and resources and working together towards shared values are well known to be important in effective team performance. Shared Situational Awareness though is the glue for teams. How you understand my context and situation and we adapt to each new situation as it arises — collaborating to gain those synergies everyone promises. And the key to SSA is open and candid communication. It’s the leader’s job to enable and encourage that.

Organisations accomplish what they do because of teamwork

Whether you are in business, sport, education, the church and even marriage — teamwork is what paves the way to success. What a leader can do with a great team far surpasses anything they can accomplish alone. As a leader learns how to unite the right people around a shared vision, their influence truly begins to take off.

According to Dr. John C. Maxwell in his book, The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, the 1st Law of Teamwork is The Law of Significance:

One is too small a number to achieve greatness. Leaders who fail to promote teamwork undermine their own potential and erode the best efforts of the people with whom they work. To accomplish anything significant, leaders must learn to link up with others.

What’s wrong with being a “self-made” man?

I was working with a very successful businessman. In our first session, he proudly informed me that he was a “self-made man”. He was rather taken aback when I appeared unimpressed. After all, this man is successful and rich. I responded, “That’s too bad. Imagine just how much you could have achieved with a great team.”

The reality, of course, is that no-one is truly self-made. We may not have been gifted our businesses by our parents, but they have played a part in making you. Your education may have been cut short or even, not especially good, but your teachers did impart something. For a few of my clients, what they perceive as being negative in their lives is the turning point for their success.

A leader’s job is to develop the team so that the team is effective!

But what is an effective team?

There are probably as many definitions of an effective team as there are teams. But there does seem to be a commonality and this, I believe, distills to:

An effective team has unity of cohesion and effort towards a common goal.

The Five components of an effective team

These five components stem from research undertaken largely by the US Military (in particular, post-Gulf War I, when the number of “friendly fire” incidents became unacceptable).

Only when all five components are present in a team is there the potential for true unity of cohesion and effort.

Shared Values

The visible aspect of leadership is just 10% of the whole. What sinks leaders is the 90 % below the surface.

Shared values define the team. Without common values, everyone on the team has a different opinion about what’s important. Values put people on the same page. Just as personal values influence and guide an individual’s behaviour, organisational values set the standard for a team’s performance.

Too often, the values of a team are prepared by a marketing consultant, discussed and pasted on walls. Yet these are not the underlying true values of the individual’s within the team. Rarely does one see a team’s values statement include payment for their contribution, nor do we often see values pertaining to providing a safe and secure home for our families.

When we ask our clients why they work, the number 1 response is unsurprisingly, money. Joint second is providing for a family home and education for children, third is God.

I liken shared values to the image of an iceberg. The 10% above the water is what we see of the values that a person or the team holds — it represents the behaviours that are manifest.

The 90% below the water is the character of the individual or team — which is defined by the values that the team members hold.

It’s the 90% below the surface that sinks the ship.

The leader who neglects the real shared values of the team may find that the team:

  • Stagnates or fails to grow
  • Avoids obstacles
  • Loses achievement-oriented employees
  • Encourages team members to focus on their own careers and individual goals
  • Is easily distracted

Clear Command Instruction

Clarity about the direction the team should take is critical, yet so often it is unclear… if it is known at all.

Clear command instruction gives team members direction and confidence. If you lead your team, then you are responsible for identifying a worthy and compelling vision and articulating it to the team. People continually need to be shown the team’s compass clearly and creatively so that their actions align and they stay motivated by a captivating picture of the future.

Each team member should be able to make decisions readily and rapidly based on the clarity of the command instruction.

Clarity is critical. Often we see the use of delightful, yet nebulous words used to describe the goal and provide the direction. The word excellence (or excellent) is one example. Like values statements, the intentions are good, but what does excellence mean? We each have our own definition, all perfectly valid, of what excellence means.

In “Made to Stick“, the Heath Brothers refer to this as ‘Commanders Intent’ and recommend that leaders strip down the goal to the core message. The Combat Maneuver Training Centre, the unit in charge of military simulations in the US recommends that officers arrive at the Commander’s Intent by asking themselves two questions:

  • If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission we must __________________.
  • The single most important thing that we do tomorrow is __________________.

In this way, any team member who faces a decision can make that decision in line with the command instruction.
Establishing this takes time. Sometimes it is easy — when there are specific standards laid down by an industry body such as a Ministry of Health, the Inland Revenue or a professional body — then the goal of achieving those standards makes command instruction comparatively straightforward:

Achieve these standards!

But what happens once those standards are achieved? The leader then needs to create the new standards and articulate these to the team. And like any goal you want to achieve it has to be SMART, sensory and compelling, and of course, it must satisfy the values.

Leaders who are unable to articulate clarity of command instruction often find that the team fails to commit and:

  • This creates ambiguity among the team about direction and priorities
  • Team member’s watch windows of opportunity close due to excessive analysis and unnecessary delay
  • It also breeds lack of confidence and fear of failure
  • Team’s revisit discussions and decisions again and again
  • And also encourages second-guessing among team members

Shared Experience

It’s all well and good to have a goal, but how do we do this? This is when shared experience comes into play.

Having clarity of direction that will satisfy shared values is only the beginning of effectiveness for the team. Shared experienced is the ‘how the team will do this’. What skills and knowledge are needed to achieve this?

Teams are, of course, filled with individuals. And each individual brings with them their own set of skills, knowledge and abilities. And all players in a team have a place where they add the most value. Winning teams require more than the right people. You may have a group of talented individuals, but if each person is out of position, then the team won’t reach its potential.

Leading a successful team involves putting people in spots where they can excel.

The leader can think of team members as resources and fill the spots like playing checkers, or the leader can recognise the particular strengths and abilities of each individual. Using their strengths work together as a team — like a chess player.

When the leader fails to use the right strengths and abilities…

  • This creates resentment among team members who have different standards of performance
  • Encourages mediocrity
  • The team misses deadlines and key deliverables
  • And places an undue burden on the team leader as the sole source of discipline

Shared Situational Awareness

Shared situational awareness is something you experience every day driving in heavy traffic. But not everyone behaves rationally

The most neglected component of developing effective teams is shared situational awareness.
Shared Situational Awareness is when all team members’ continuous perceptions of themselves and their peers in relation to the dynamic environment of business, competition, goals and the ability to predict, and then execute based on shared perception.

This is often neglected because it is so difficult to pin down. And the moment that you do pin down that you are fully aware of the current situation, the situation has already changed. Further, in circumstances where an individual’s situational awareness is well developed, much of the processing is unconscious.

Take, for example, driving a vehicle:

When you first learned to drive you were acutely aware of the very many things that required your attention. All of which had an impact or potential impact on your response. You have to steer, change gear, accelerate, break, and watch what is behind you, beside you, in front of you. You have to predict the behaviour of every other road user and make decisions based on a common set of rules. All on the basis of trust. Trust that the other road users will obey the rules, trust that the brake pedal will work, and trust in your own judgment call about what each other road user will or will not do.

Now imagine attempting to instruct another person remotely how to do that, in real time.

You would need to know that person’s knowledge and experience, where they were, what vehicle they were driving and all the other information. Impossible.

To enable this to work, the leader and each team member needs to be sure that every team member will perform their role effectively and how each will respond to given, known (and unknown) situations (following the command instruction based on known shared values using their known abilities and experience). It also means that team members look out for each other in the interests of the team.

When shared situational awareness is poor, teams:

  • Conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another
  • Hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback
  • Hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibility
  • Jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them
  • Fail to recognise and tap into one another’s skills and experiences
  • Waste time and energy managing their behaviours for effect
  • Hold grudges
  • Dread meetings and find reasons to avoid spending time together


Without effective communications, none of the rest matter

The fifth component of an effective team is in their communications. Communication brings to light disagreements so that teammates can hammer out their differences and move forward in unison. Communication also spreads information, which eliminates redundancies and prevents teammates from working at cross‐purposes.

Communication within the team must continuously reinforce and support each of the other four components. Openly and candidly.

And critically, communication is the response you get. If a team member does not understand what their teammate is saying, the teammate is responsible for getting their message across.

The culture within the team is created, reinforced or undermined by the communication within the team. Consider communication as a family virus. The virus spreads rapidly and easily because the family stays close together and has members who are similar. The more virulent the virus, the quicker it spreads… and for communication, nothing spreads faster than gossip, cynicism and untruths. A wise leader ensures that they inoculate every team member with their chosen contagion that supports the desired team culture and prevents the spread of any malicious or damaging chatter.

Teams that have poor communication:

  • Have boring meetings
  • Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive
  • Ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success
  • Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members
  • Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management

Team dysfunctions and issues

Data collected from 582 teams between Jan 2008 and June 2011 in South East Asia organisations. Shared Situational Awareness was the #1 problem, with communications coming in second

In my work with hundreds of work teams, we have found that the lack of Shared Situational Awareness is always the number one cause of issues in teams. Even in teams that are high performing. It is most often manifest in the apparent lack of trust in the team. Lack of trust is the fruit of behaviours that good SSA would overcome.

The second dysfunction of teams is communication — often brought about because of a lack of shared situational awareness or, as most people think of it, trust.

Clarity of command instruction is most often the third issue teams face, though in competitive business organisations the third issue is frequently shared values.

Diagnosing the Issues in the team

Data from 582 teams, showing number of symptoms in each team for each component

In our work and research with organisation teams across industries and across the globe we have identified the symptoms of team dysfunction and how frequently each occur within a team. By surveying team members we have been able to identify the frequency of dysfunction symptoms and thereby identify the key component issue.

What does the leader need to do?

Law 4 in John Maxwell’s 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork is the Law of Mount Everest

As the challenge escalates, the need for teamwork elevates. As the journey grows in difficulty, you can no longer cruise along with ordinary talent and average cooperation. To climb past the obstacles to your dream, you need to have a team of peak performers working in unison and clicking on all cylinders.

If your team is facing challenges or you want it to perform better:

Your first task is to recognise that it is your responsibility as the leader. It is not the team members’ responsibility nor is it an external consultant’s responsibility to “fix” the team. It starts with you.

Use this chart to identify the key symptoms of ineffectiveness your team exhibits and thus which is the critical component that needs work as a priority. There’s a larger version of this on the next page for you to use. Click the Chart for a full-size version and download.

In each area, there are common key symptoms. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, just an overview of the top and most frequently uncovered issues in our work with teams:

Observe the symptoms of dysfunction that may be present and raise each issue with the whole team. Now is the time you can ask the team to help you fix the issues.

Knowing your goals, having the right experience and resources and working together towards satisfying shared values are well known to be important in effective team performance. Shared Situational Awareness and clear communication though is the glue for teams: How you understand my context and situation and we adapt to each new situation as it arises — collaborating to gain those synergies everyone promises. And the key to SSA is open and candid communication.

So, back to that overhang when I was tempted to flip over the edge and dive deeper into almost certain death.

Why for that moment had my situational awareness switched off?

The extra nitrogen I was, by then, carrying in my blood certainly had a part to play, but I’ve had similar experiences on dry land too. Brief moments, when I’ve drifted off in my mind, still cognizant of what is going on but in that dream-like state of being so absorbed by one aspect of reality, that the rest of the world is shut off. You’ve had such moments too.

You’ve driven home with something else filling your mind, arrived and wondered how on earth you managed that without crashing. The time between leaving and arriving is almost a blur.

Our brain, powerful as it is, can truthfully only focus on one thing at a time. It has to switch between the multitude of attention demands. Giving each scant attention and given the opportunity, our brain instead of consuming vast amounts of energy switching attention from one part of the environment to another, latches onto one thing, and a sort of relaxed reverie takes over.

Our own situational awareness is compromised the moment we become tired. Thus the shared situational awareness in our team is the first thing that becomes compromised in our quest for unity of cohesion and effort.

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