Debriefs Are NOT About Being Critical
When a new fighter pilot considers the prospect of climbing in a $154M aircraft for the first time and employing it the way it was built to be employed, it can be slightly overwhelming. Because of how complicated the airplane systems are, and because the domain in which pilots employ these aircraft is so complex, there is no way that anyone would expect the new pilot to get everything right the first time. Or the second. Or the seventh. Or the twenty seventh, for that matter. In fact, the expectation is that it will take months until the new pilot is competent at the job, and years until he or she can be considered an expert. At the beginning and end of the day, it's an incredibly tough way to make a living.
It can be even more tough if the Instructor Pilots on the various missions the new pilot flies use the debrief as a forum to highlight just how bad the new pilot is. They do this when they think that debriefs are all about being critical.
Despite the complexity of the operating environment, and despite the fact that the new pilot is expected to make a ton of mistakes, it's incredibly easy for the Instructor Pilot to fall into the trap of only highlighting the negative, harping on the various mistakes as being evidence that the new pilot is a failure. After all, the negative always stands out, it's really easy for everyone to see, and the subconscious thinking can be that we can effectively shame our teammates into improving. It's also unfortunately how so many of us approach giving feedback, in debriefing others' performance no matter what the domain. We might deliver our criticism with a smile, couched as being offered in a supportive way, but the words fall harshly and can be received as daggers by our recipients.
Interestingly, some observers propose that we learn best by receiving this kind of feedback. Some, but not all...>
In their HBR article "Why Organizations Don't Learn", authors Francesco Gino and Bradley Staats propose, "Leaders must constantly emphasize that mistakes are learning opportunities rather than cause for embarrassment or punishment, and they must act in ways that reinforce that message." In other words, they suggest that our teammates shouldn't be blamed or shamed for making mistakes, especially when those mistakes analyzed properly help promote a teammate's growth.
What might this approach this mean, then, for our debriefs?
It means our debriefs are opportunities to build and develop our teammates. They're where we outline the truth of what happened so that we can learn effectively...and very few people learn effectively by being blamed or shamed for their mistakes. All of this means that we need to fight the inclination to harp on the bad as being bad and recognize the good that comes from teammates pushing to improve and failing in the process.
Authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, in their recent HBR article "The Feedback Fallacy" propose, "Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it." They also suggest that, "...learning happens when we see how we might do something better by adding some new nuance or expansion to our own understanding. Learning rests on our grasp of what we’re doing well, not on what we’re doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly. And second, that we learn most when someone else pays attention to what’s working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently. We’re often told that the key to learning is to get out of our comfort zones, but these findings contradict that particular chestnut: Take us very far out of our comfort zones, and our brains stop paying attention to anything other than surviving the experience. It’s clear that we learn most in our comfort zones, because that’s where our neural pathways are most concentrated. It’s where we’re most open to possibility, most creative, insightful, and productive. That’s where feedback must meet us—in our moments of flow."
So how do we address this tendency? How do we make debriefs events our teammates look forward to?
Very simple: we take a page from my good friend Les Landes' book and we intentionally view our teammates as part of the solution to—as opposed to the source of—our problems. We see our role as leaders to help our teammates to improve in a human way, by finding the right approach to highlight our teammates' successes and help them overcome their shortcomings.
A final point from Buckingham and Goodall: "We humans do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we “really” are, and what we must do to fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works." In other words, debriefs are NOT all about being critical. They're about working through human means to develop our teammates to be as good as they can be.