“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”–Søren Kierkegaard
Sometimes they were prolonged, messy events, unfolding like a slow-motion train wreck; other times they were as swift and traumatic as a plane crash. I’m thinking of the painful, public career setbacks and failures I witnessed and experienced during my long career in the insurance business. There were different contributing factors and extenuating circumstances—organizational changes, acquisitions, CEO changes, life events, strategy shifts, impulse control issues, power struggles, unfortunate decisions, politics, and sometimes even manipulation and dirty tricks—but frequently a low level of awareness (both situational and self-awareness) played a strong supporting role.
People with good situational awareness pay attention to what’s going on around them—they perceive the dynamics and attributes of their environment, just as people with good self-awareness pay attention to how they feel and what they are doing. Those without good situational and self-awareness can seem distracted, naïve, clueless, sometimes even defiant because they have insulated themselves from what is happening, both internally and externally. When challenges loom, they either don’t pick up on the clues and warning signs, or they discount or disregard them. They disengage from their information networks and eventually lose their “mojo,” making them powerless to comprehend the patterns of behavior, emerging realities, personalities, motives, conflicts, and imperatives that will eventually overwhelm and derail them.
Awareness is not only an essential life survival skill, but also it is an absolutely critical professional skill for anyone who works with others and makes decisions—in other words, most of us reading this. Of course, awareness isn’t a magic shield capable of deflecting personal and career setbacks, but paying attention may at least give you a chance to see whatever challenges are coming. Dr. Mica Endsley, an expert in dynamic decision making, identifies three process stages that contribute to situational awareness:
• Perception—seeing, hearing or otherwise becoming aware of information in the environment.
• Comprehension—analyzing, classifying, and interpreting that information; determining meaning and importance.
• Projection—estimating the future state of the environment.
Perception creates awareness—seeing, hearing, noticing, and observing actions, events, and people. Anything that interferes with perception ultimately interferes with comprehension and awareness, so it all starts with perception.
Here’s the rub: while we all have different thinking styles to assist with perception, our default style involves an automatic, subconscious process that uses intuition, emotions, risk analysis, and pattern recognition to evaluate information. Not exactly like thinking on autopilot, but close. Let’s take a look at a problem to illustrate:
A baseball and a bat together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much is the ball?
Many people answer “10 cents” without any hesitation, even though that is not the correct answer. Why? Well, they triage the problem subconsciously and determine it to be simple and straightforward, with an obvious answer. They use what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking—fast thinking that relies upon intuition, impulse, and emotion—to come up with the wrong answer.
But if people are warned before the problem is presented that it is tricky and difficult, then most will get the correct answer. The warning causes them to reflect before answering, to consciously use their slower, more analytical brain function to determine the answer. Kahneman calls this System 2 thinking—slow thinking that relies upon orderly processing, logic, and reasoning.
An excerpt of Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” appeared in Scientific American under the headline “Of Two Minds: How Fast and Slow Thinking Shape Perception and Choice.” He describes it this way:
Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine—usually.
Why is the distinction between System 1 and System 2 thinking important? We are not the tremendously perceptive thinking machines that we believe we are, continuously processing information rationally and intentionally. System 2 thinking is too inefficient and slow for us to use it all of the time. Instead, we use System 1 thinking to manage our perception gateway, collecting inputs and filtering them through our own mesh of expectations and beliefs. We then interpret the inputs, tell ourselves a story about what happened and why, experience an emotional reaction, and respond. The whole process is quick and vulnerable to the influence of non-conscious drivers (biases) that can distort information and impede perception.
Which biases play a significant role in inhibiting perception? Certainly, any that interfere with seeing, hearing, or otherwise becoming aware of information because it is troublesome, doesn’t quite fit our view of the world, is someone else’s idea, or is counter to the status quo. Some examples:
• Confirmation Bias—focusing on information that confirms preconceptions and affirms the status quo.
• Normalcy Bias—refusing to contemplate, plan for, or react to something that hasn’t happened before.
• Not Invented Here—refusing to accept products, service, standards, or knowledge developed by others.
• Ostrich Effect—ignoring a negative situation.
• Reactive Devaluation—devaluing proposals because they originated from an adversary.
• Status Quo Bias—wanting to see things stay the same.
• Naïve Realism—believing that we see reality objectively and without bias, that rational people will agree with us.
• System Justification—defending and protecting the status quo.
It’s no wonder that we have trouble perceiving what is actually happening. Most of our day-to-day perception relies upon an automatic filtering system that is prone to biases, concealing or camouflaging information that is critical to perception. According to Dr. Endsley, stress, workload, complexity, and other environmental dynamics also interfere with perception. It’s not too difficult to imagine that personal distractions, life pressures, business challenges, change denial, and wishful thinking might also get in the way.
So clearly perception can be elusive, but if it is a precursor to awareness, and awareness really is a fundamentally desirable capability, shouldn’t we do our best to become as perceptive as we can? If so, a good place to start might be to create an inventory of factors that interfere with perception, with an eye toward mitigating them. I made such a list based upon what I’ve observed and experienced, and then grouped the factors into four problem categories (see Table One.)
I’d suggest you make your own list. Allow yourself some distraction-free time, however, since doing it right requires reflection, recognition, and acknowledgement that there are issues hampering your perception that need to be addressed, some of which are under your control; some of which aren’t. At the very least, the exercise will help you think about what is going on, and it may even help you chart your own path to improved perception. Some thoughts on the problem categories illustrated in Table One:
Information quality is relatively easy to improve as long as you take an honest and critical look at how your current processes are working. You might see something like this:
• Your information collection processes and network of inputs are underdeveloped and poorly managed—you are not getting all the information you need, when you need it.
• The information you get has been censored, filtered, rationalized, and summarized to the point where it may be unreliable.
• The information you get has not been sufficiently vetted for quality, accuracy, and completeness.
• When you look at the information, your own biases, experiences, values, emotions, and beliefs influence your interpretation, possibly inappropriately.
• You do not have an effective, well-defined process for identifying and collecting essential next-level information.
The good news is that you can usually shift your information collection processes and your network to the next level simply by consciously paying more attention to the information you collect and to the biases and emotions that influence your interpretation of that information. Look at information from different perspectives. Be interested and open-minded, but curious and discerning enough to challenge your initial impressions. Probe for details and root causes, ask open-ended questions; cultivate and expand your network. Redesign your information collection and processing mechanism to incorporate best practices for securing information, vetting it, sharing it, and interpreting it.
Work environment challenges often represent the realities of your workplace culture and operating environment, so they usually are what they are. If they are causing you grief, then your options are to change those realities, adapt your behavior to them, or move on.
Recognizing and dealing with personal challenges, self-discipline issues, and perceptual blind spots is tough for most of us. Self-awareness exercises, such as pausing occasionally to think about what is happening, why, how you feel about it, and how you are dealing with it, can help you reconnect with yourself. Put away your phone for a few minutes and objectively evaluate your strengths, weaknesses, motives, behavior, and health. Doing so might help you pinpoint where you need support and where you need to be more disciplined and demanding of yourself. Seeking feedback from friends, colleagues, mentors, or even an executive coach often will help.
Remember, anything that interferes with perception ultimately interferes with comprehension and awareness. Perception requires you to pay attention. It doesn’t guarantee awareness or success, but it improves your odds. “Alchemist” author Paulo Coelho says it better: “All you have to do is to pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs, you will learn everything you need to know in order to take the next step.”
Will better perception, improved comprehension, and heightened awareness make a difference for you? You’ll have to be the judge, but management consultant Marlene Chism makes your chances sound pretty good: “Every leadership problem you have, as well as every personal problem you experience, can be overcome with a higher level of awareness.”