Situational Awareness…do you have it?

One of the innumerable items to think about when training employees, company, or clients in the prevention of workplace violence (WPV)is the idea of situational awareness (SA). While most everyone thinks they have an idea of what it is, but the actual definition is just out of reach.

One definition of SA is: Knowing and being aware of the situation around you. The situation can vary from setting to setting. From corridors, stairs, and storage rooms in an office building to a myriad of environments within a heavy manufacturing facility. An example;

A manufacturing plant has fork, and scissor, lifts, multi-ton presses, and hazardous chemicals and so on. If you are not aware of the situation, or environment, you are in… it can be extremely hazardous and potentially even life threatening.

In just the same way, during a WPV incident you have to be aware of what’s happening. You have to make snap and quick decisions about the survival of yourself and co-workers, which is not always easy. When your internal fight or flight is in full alert mode and the adrenaline is pumping like an untethered fire hose, you may not be able to think clearly enough without having that little thing called SA.

In my four decades working I’ve known hundreds of supervisors and managers. Some were better than others but just as many who can’t think on their feet very well. They are excellent at managing people …but crisis thinking was not one of their strong points. If it means thinking by the numbers and out of a book, then they are fantastic but otherwise…eh not so much.

I’ve also known hundreds of front line employees who were better suited to crisis thinking than their managers, most of them were military veterans who had been in combat. Their brains were wired to think on their feet and do the right thing… immediately. They can size up the situation and make the correct decision, most of the time, within a Nano-second. Some of these people are not in management, at any level nor do they wish to be.

I always attempted to train my officers to have SA and be a bit hyper vigilant, or paranoid whichever term you prefer, while on duty. After that they had to run various scenarios through their mind, so they were prepared for such events, no matter what it was. I always taught them to think like a criminal or teenage hooligan to prepare themselves for a situation, then how to handle it.

Many times my officers made me proud because they responded outside their comfort zone and did things they weren’t supposed to be able to. As a matter of fact, to boast a bit, even those who were considered slow and stupid by other management acquitted themselves more than adequately in emergency situations. To me it proves that at least in these instances, there was a method to my madness and how well these ‘dummies’ could actually be great officers.

If you have employees or supervisory people who can’t think straight in an emergency, then you need to appoint someone else to lead the team to safety, and unfortunately for ego and chain of command sake, it may be an hourly employee. And this may also mean your Crisis Management Team as well. One of the major precepts of any good manager, and employee for that matter, is to know their subordinates limitations and lean on them when necessary.

As a manager in Kansas City I had to assist with placing officers where they best fit. Sometimes that wasn’t where they wanted to be nor the shift they wanted. But I had to make them understand that that is where they were needed. Unfortunately, in most of those cases, they lived down to their levels of incompetence, which is why they were placed on those accounts.

But SA is as much an acquired skill as it is inborn. While you can have those instincts and have the awareness, it can also be taught. And you have to endeavor to teach your employees how to have that SA. It’s not easy but it could save their lives and yours.

So how do you teach it? It’s not as easy as defining it. The one technique that I told you about earlier is being hyper vigilant. Because if they are hyper vigilant, then they will constantly be aware of what’s around them and thinking and developing ideas/plans.

Obviously, you don’t want employees that are so paranoid and scared of their own shadow they will jump and panic for no reason. However, if you utilize team building and observation exercises in your monthly or quarterly meetings they will be better observers and hopefully acquire that awareness fairly cheaply for the company. And if they can acquire that skill, it will help them, their families, and the company.

One exercise I used in the past is having everyone close their eyes and blind fold themselves while at the training table. I then walked around the room, with help of an accomplice, to see if they could, or would, become aware when we were directly behind them, speaking out when we were. The idea was to see if they could figure out they were two of us in the room. It worked, they began to think differently.

SA may seem like a trivial to most people who will ask, why? For security professionals and officers it is a vitally necessary tool in our arsenal to combat the evils of crime, fraud, WPV, and the myriad of other issues we face on daily basis. Do you and your officers have it?

Robert D. Sollars assists businesses and their employees to lessen their risk of WPV as well as other security/customer service related issues. You can follow him on his Facebook page,, or twitter@robertsollars2.

                            I May be Blind but my Vision is Crystal Clear

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