The Art of the Debrief: Thriving on Self-Improvement and Brutally Honest Feedback

What the world of aviation can teach us about valuing self-reflection over achievement and self-aggrandizement in the workplace.

By Kate Broug

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Our culture is obsessed with crashes. In the past couple of months alone, I’ve had friends recommend at least three different TV series centered around high-profile fallen entrepreneurs. These shows document their meteoric rise to fame, then spotlight all of the flaws and wrong turns that eventually led them to fail.

As an entrepreneur, having every little life event and business decision scrutinized on the big screen (or worse, in court) sounds like a nightmare. But as a pilot, I don’t find this postmortem strange at all. In aviation, having every mistake — big or small — picked apart is not only routine; it’s part of the job. A pilot who can’t own up to and learn from their mistakes is bound to fail.

When it comes to business, though, far too many companies prioritize achievement and self-aggrandizement over learning and self-reflection. Problems are allowed to pile up, and people wait until things have taken a nosedive to finally confront reality.

But what if we changed the status quo? Would fewer startups fail if businesspeople received frequent and brutally honest criticism like pilots do? What would happen if entrepreneurs started admitting their mistakes in real-time?

Debriefing: Build trust, continuous learning and feedback loops

In aviation, moments of reckoning are regularly scheduled. Mistakes are quickly caught, recorded and scrutinized. There’s an arsenal of tools to keep pilots accountable and learning from every mishap — recurrent training, reports, debriefings and simulators. Of these, debriefings are the most important.

How do debriefings work? They’re essentially performance reviews that happen immediately after a flight or mission. Pilots, astronauts and other professionals employ them for teaching, learning, benchmarking progress and ensuring procedures are working as intended.

The format and frequency of debriefings will vary depending on the setting. But the concept remains the same: Do a deep dive into what went right, what went wrong and how to improve in the future. Any errors are subjected to a root cause analysis to dissect what happened, identify contributing factors and see how mistakes can be prevented moving forward. Those involved are expected to show no judgment or pride and give zero excuses. The priority is to learn.

Debriefing is the other side of intense preparation. You can’t train obsessively only to pack up and leave after executing, failing to analyze whether or not your performance was up to par. Organizations with strong debriefing cultures, like the U.S. Air Force and NASA, thrive on the brutally honest feedback handed out during these reviews. This process helps build self-awareness, reduce error rates and instill a culture of continuous learning and development.

The best part? You can adapt debriefing for nearly every line of work. When transitioning into the business world, many retired military pilots bring the art of debriefing with them. And other professionals, such as surgeons and engineers, have reaped huge benefits after adopting this practice.

Structuring debriefings: Maximize learning opportunities

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