One of the most inspiring things I’ve learned by observing and serving on many teams over the years is the consistency with which people rise to the standard that is set for them, especially when their leader holds themselves to an equal or higher standard. At the same time, this phenomenon often encourages leaders to set stretch goals requiring near-perfect execution.
Although perfect execution is a worthy goal, it’s obviously not humanly possible. Despite their best intentions, people make honest mistakes. So the question is, how can leaders inspire their people to pursue stretch-goal standards, while embracing a standard of excellence that falls short of perfection? I’ve found that the answer lies in the power of debriefing.
I flew over 3,000 flights in my military career. Before every flight, we briefed for an hour. Following every flight, we debriefed for at least an hour. When I was a TOPGUN instructor, our debriefs were six to eight hours long. I don’t recommend that you spend six to eight hours debriefing everything you do with your team. But whenever you invest significant time or resources in something, consider taking a few minutes afterward to huddle up and answer three simple questions.
First, what happened relative to what you were trying to achieve? Second, why did it happen? In other words, do some root cause analysis to determine why you did or didn’t accomplish your objective. And third, how can you improve as a team next time?
There is one key word noticeably absent from that debriefing checklist. It’s the word who. One of our primary rules at TOPGUN was to “take the who out of the debrief” – meaning we focused more on roles, and less on the person performing the role. As soon as you put the who in it, a debrief quickly devolves into a finger-pointing blame game. Then everyone gets defensive and the learning stops. Most of us can relate to that feeling because we’ve been there.
Why do people get defensive when you put the who in the debrief? Because our identity is threatened whenever someone points out our mistakes, especially in front of others. And when our identity or value is threatened, our brain produces higher levels of cortisol. This neurochemical reaction shuts down thinking, and activates conflict aversion and self-protection behaviors.
I’ve seen this happen dozens of times during flight debriefs with fighter pilots. And I’ve felt it myself a number of times as well. I call it the “deflector shield.” When you attack someone’s identity and value in a debrief, it’s like a protective shield comes down in front of their face to deflect your words. They might pretend to be listening, but they aren’t hearing a word you’re saying. It’s like the owner chastising his dog in Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoon, where all the dog hears is, “Blah, blah, blah . . .”
As a leader, how can you keep deflector shields “up” during debriefs to maximize learning and improvement? Consider two actions: lead with humility, and communicate with positivity.
Lead With Humility
First, start every debrief by admitting your own mistakes as the leader. Be quick to accept responsibility for any failures, and make a commitment to learn from your shortcomings to improve. You’ll be amazed by how this will inspire the members of your team to acknowledge their own mistakes and challenge themselves to improve. By leading with humility and focusing on what you can do better, you’ll create a psychologically safe environment where your people can learn and grow.
Communicate With Positivity
Second, be as positive and constructive as possible during your debriefs in order to keep deflector shields “up.” Positive comments in conversations produce oxytocin in our brain, which enhances our ability to communicate, collaborate, and trust others. Research shows that the top oxytocin-producing conversational behavior is showing empathy and concern. On the other hand, the top cortisol-producing behavior is giving the impression that you don’t trust others’ intentions. To maximize learning and improvement, put yourself in their shoes, show genuine concern for their professional growth, and assume positive intent.
Effective debriefing can be a force multiplier for your team. Lead with humility and communicate with positivity to keep your team members in “receive” rather than “defend” mode. And if you focus on what happened, why it happened, and how you can collectively work together as a team to improve, you’ll foster an atmosphere of teaching and learning that will help take your team to the next level of passion for excellence, continuous improvement, and mission accomplishment.
Best wishes debriefing and leading your team to new heights!
To learn more about how to effectively lead a high-performing team, check out The Substance of Leadership. Also, take the five-minute Performance Pressure Test for more insight into how well you’re performing as a leader.