How to Thrive on Self-Improvement and Brutally Honest Feedback

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Our culture is obsessed with accidents. In the last two months alone, I’ve had friends recommend at least three different TV series focused on high-profile fallen entrepreneurs. These shows document their meteoric rise to fame, and then highlight all the flaws and wrong twists that eventually led them to fail.

As an entrepreneur, having every small event in life and every business decision reviewed on the big screen (or worse, in the courts) sounds like a nightmare. But as a pilot, I don’t find this autopsy at all strange. In aviation, separating all mistakes, big or small, is not just a routine; is part of the job. A pilot who cannot accept and learn from his mistakes is bound to fail.

When it comes to business, however, too many companies prioritize achievement and self-growth over personal learning and reflection. Problems are allowed to pile up and people wait until things have plummeted to finally face reality.

Related: Why accepting failure is good for business

But what if we changed the status quo? Would fewer startups fail if employers receive frequent and brutally honest criticism like pilots do? What if employers started admitting their mistakes in real time?

Debriefing: build trust, continuous learning and feedback loops

In aviation, counting moments are regularly scheduled. Errors are quickly detected, logged, and controlled. There is an arsenal of tools to keep pilots accountable and learning from each setback: recurring training, reports, briefings and simulators. Of these, debriefings are the most important.

How do debriefings work? These are basically performance reviews that occur immediately after a flight or mission. Pilots, astronauts, and other professionals use them to teach, learn, analyze progress, and make sure procedures work as planned.

The format and frequency of the information sessions will vary depending on the configuration. But the concept remains the same: make a deep dive into what has gone well, what has gone wrong, and how to improve in the future. Any error is subjected to a root cause analysis to analyze what has happened, identify the contributing factors, and see how errors can be prevented in the future. Those involved are expected not to show judgment or pride and not to make excuses. The priority is to learn.

Debriefing is the other side of intense preparation. You can’t train obsessively just to pack up and leave after running, without analyzing whether or not your performance was up to par. Organizations with a strong debriefing culture, such as the U.S. Air Force and NASA, develop with the brutally honest comments given during these reviews. This process helps to create self-knowledge, reduce error rates, and instill a culture of continuous learning and development.

The best part? You can customize debriefing for almost all lines of work. When they make the transition to the business world, many retired military pilots carry the art of debriefing with them. And other professionals, such as surgeons and engineers, have reaped great benefits after adopting this practice.

Related: Debriefing helps you process lessons learned

Information structuring: maximizing learning opportunities

How you incorporate debriefings will vary depending on your current situation and your long-term goals. Regardless, the purpose should always be to build responsibility and foster a growth mindset. Here is a basic information structure to help you get started:

  1. Set a schedule: Regularity is key to ensuring an effective report. By establishing continuous feedback loops and accountability, you can spot and correct bugs soon. Also, the events will still be fresh in everyone’s mind when they are talked about.

  2. Set an agenda: Choose the most important events you want to talk about. Prioritize anything that didn’t go according to plan; this is where the most important lessons are. But feel free to acknowledge the achievements, as these also offer valuable insights.

  3. Start with 4 W: WHO? What? When? On? Answer these four questions to make an objective snapshot of each point covered.

  4. Immerse yourself in it Because:” Mistakes and other problems are treated as “why”. Performing a root cause analysis will help you accurately identify where the problems originated. This way, you can address the sources and avoid them in the future.

  5. Document your findings: Coding lessons learned in procedures and guidelines will make them accessible to everyone and promote improved performance.

Related: Why the key to self-improvement is not complicated

Developing a debriefing culture: empowering people to clarify

The key to successful meetings is to create a culture focused on learning and self-reflection for everyone, regardless of their position. People need to feel comfortable talking, taking charge, and taking responsibility for others as well as themselves. The attitude that participants contribute in an information session will ultimately determine whether the exercise is useful or not. Everyone should remember:

  1. Learn: This is the main purpose of debriefing. Mistakes provide valuable lessons, so face them directly.

  2. Don’t do it personally: When reviewing an event, focus on the actions rather than the individual. The point is not to make people look bad, but to help them improve.

  3. You have your mistakes: Leave pride and excuses at the door. Learn to depersonalize criticism and respond positively.

  4. Consider every detail: Mistakes are not always easy. Get to the root cause and learn exactly why things happened.

  5. Commitment to improvement: Record the lessons learned and keep them in mind to move forward. Use them to self-correct and compare your progress.

Creating a culture of ownership and self-reflection can be a challenge, especially in business, where pride and ruthless competition dominate. “It’s not easy for hypercompetitive people to talk openly about mistakes that made them look silly or incompetent,” wrote Colonel Chris Hadfield, a retired astronaut and fighter pilot, when describing NASA’s debriefing culture. But if the goal is to succeed, putting aside pride in the name of personal improvement can be what sets you apart from competitors and saves you from a messy crash.

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