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Research: Debriefing Pays Off for Teams

2018-07-12T10:28:14+00:00July 5th, 2018|

Teams take many forms in today’s workplace. No matter the size or location of work groups, however, those that debrief have significantly higher performance levels, according to researchers at Rice University.

“Team Development: The Power of Debriefing,” which appeared in the spring edition of the journal People and Strategy, focuses on how debriefing can impact teamwork activities.

The study found that teams that debrief — i.e., meet to discuss what went well and what did not during a particular activity — outperform teams that do not by about 20 percent. Performance was measured according to objectively quantifiable output from personnel records, self-ratings and performance appraisal ratings.

The debriefings do not necessarily have to be long, according to Eduardo Salas, one of the authors. Most in the analyzed research samples were fairly efficient and lasted 15 to 60 minutes.

Salas and his fellow authors created a list of best practices for successful debriefing sessions based on the existing research.

Before a debriefing:

  • Allocate time to debrief following team activities
  • Educate team leaders on how and why to lead team debriefings
  • Teach leaders and team members about what really influences team effectiveness – the “science” of teamwork
  • Ensure that all team members feel comfortable actively participating in a debriefing

During a debriefing:

  • Avoid the following: too much focus on task work; telling, not discussing; improper or inadequate focus; taking a good look back, but no definitive look forward and being too evaluative or threatening
  • Try to conduct the debriefing close in time to the “action,” if possible
  • Record conclusions and agreements reached to be able to “close the loop” after the debriefing. Make sure everyone has an understanding of next steps, and follow up with team members when appropriate  
  • Consider trying technology to assist with debriefings (if appropriate)

Following a debriefing:

  • Boost accountability and willingness to participate in future debriefings by following up on agreements and communicating progress. For instance, provide examples of what resulted from debriefing sessions, and follow up on progress
  • Conduct periodic debriefings that are “fit for purpose.” For example, ask if a particular issue needs to be discussed and be mindful of how this discussion can benefit the current work environment

Salas said while there is no magical, perfect frequency with which to conduct debriefings, a good rule of thumb is to increase frequency as teamwork becomes more complex and dynamic. He also said that senior leadership should consider “decision debriefs,” where they take a recent decision and discuss what the decision was, how the decision was made (e.g., who was involved, decision governance, information considered, speed of decision making and the way things were communicated), what was done well and what could have been done differently and what this means for future decisions.

Tom Schuman is the senior vice president of communications & operations for the Indiana Chamber. He is also the editor of the Chamber’s award-winning BizVoice magazine and has been with the organization for 20 years.