In a fast-changing world, leaders must take steps to cultivate contextual awareness. Atindra Ghosh, an experienced director of software engineering, shares his three top tips to develop this vital skill.
I first learned the importance of contextual awareness when I started in a management position at a new company. All it took was leading a single team meeting.
The tone of that meeting was totally different from those I had led in my previous role. Having come from managing a young, inexperienced department, I was accustomed to acting as a figure of guidance and coaching. However, as I led this particular meeting in my new organization, I couldn’t understand the look of indifference on my coworkers’ faces. Had I said something wrong?
I had expected to see good progress on the project we were discussing, having thought I’d clearly conveyed things at an earlier point. Instead, I was met with comments on how the group had faced several difficulties with the task.
Then it struck me. I was leading a group with an accumulated wealth of expertise and ability in their specific domain. The context had changed, and my old approach wasn’t going to be effective in leading a more experienced team. Accordingly, I had to revise my managerial style to focus on removing blockers and enabling the team to solve their own problems.
This is the power of developing contextual awareness. With this skill, leaders are able to effectively respond to developments in ways that benefit their team and the wider company, while neglecting to properly acclimate to new contexts can leave leaders wandering astray.
What is contextual awareness?
What is context, then? The dictionary definition is: “Circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.” Contextual awareness is the ability to understand and gather information about your environment at any given time, adjust decisions, and adapt behaviors accordingly.
Consider how the pandemic has changed the contextual landscape for how leaders engage with employees. Today, leaders are expected to take into account the overall well-being of their teams, including mental health, work-life balance, and time flexibility. Misreading this shifting context in the new hybrid work model can result in employee disengagement and the exit of key people.
Why do leaders fail to read context?
Often leaders fall into the trap of thinking that measures which have been successful in the past will work in the present, but they fail to notice that the context has changed.
This is where leaders, especially those who have moved up the corporate ladder and have become managers of managers, need to be careful. Sometimes they need to pay more attention to situational realities. The information being offered to them is often filtered through multiple levels, and it might be missing relevant details, prompting them to make decisions based on improper context.
The 3 steps to developing contextual skills
If you’re a leader who hasn’t really invested in developing contextual skills, it might be difficult to know where to start. To help guide you in the right direction, here is my three-step process to develop contextual awareness skills for leading teams:
- Build self-awareness to reveal or cultivate good decision-making habits. Get feedback from your team and your manager. Use the data to understand your leadership skills and what people think. Understand your biases and ask yourself if those biases lead you to the right decisions.
- Develop a learner mindset. Gone are the days when a leader is a be-all and know-all person possessing deep expertise in all subjects. As the context shifts rapidly, leaders must acknowledge that they can no longer be experts in every field. Instead, leaders must develop habits to listen and learn so that they can help identify solutions. Leaders must be curious and open to learning from others, especially their team. They must upgrade their skills regularly to help make better-informed decisions.
- Develop a data-oriented mindset. Leaders need various kinds of data to aid them in decision-making. Data provides insights on almost everything – from making hiring decisions, to uncovering project issues, and finding customer preferences. Data and the insights gleaned from it provide the necessary context with which leaders can make informed decisions.
Today’s volatile and fast-changing business environment has ramifications for managers leading their teams. What has worked in the past might lose its relevance today. Accordingly, leaders need to act and adapt based on these constantly changing circumstances.
Contextual awareness is therefore a fundamental leadership attribute and one that is often overlooked.
Fortunately, it is a skill that can be mastered through deliberate practice. Contextual leaders are self-aware and display curiosity. They use data to form a solid foundation for their decisions. Finally, they improve their strategies with behaviors that provide a fulfilling connection to the people around them, leaving their colleagues inspired by their actions.