Written by: Karen Fischbach – Pro Leaders Academy Pty Ltd


Debriefing originated in the military as a live, situational learning tool.  Teams in the field could literally learn on the spot what mistakes were made and why – critical when dealing with life threatening situations.

Debriefing is a mechanism to learn and develop from a task and decision-making point of view, but it is much more to the people involved.  Considering incident debriefs, humans need reassurance that things will be ok, and eventually things will go back to normal.   In terms of a business debrief, staff need to know that a mistake or a poor decision is something to learn from – not the end of the world – and again, the business and team can move on.

There is no doubt that learning from mistakes is valuable to the future progress of an organisation but freeing the mind to focus on the tasks ahead is also something that empowers people and teams to take the next step.  Remorse of feeling like a failure will slow down anyone and time is money – so this is a waste of resources.

The wise use of resources would be learning to debrief properly in a structured way that gets to the facts so the situation is known, and learning can occur.  Staff must feel they can speak openly but also be reassured by the organisational culture and the leaders that their feelings and concerns have been heard.  Not everyone processes their experiences the same way or for the same period of time and some reassurance will be required.

Debriefing is best done face to face.  Noting that this is not a full process for a debrief, some key strategies include:

  • Having a standard structure for the debriefing process. The benefit of a structure is that the staff know what sort of things may be asked and they can collect their experiences and be ready in advance -they know there will be questions as a standard process and they may be less intimidated or able to speak more freely.
  • Asking open questions both about the experience and about the wellbeing of the staff. For example, “how are you feeling?”
  • Using communication techniques that keep everyone engaged and if possible contributing.
  • Getting the team or staff member to engage in critical analysis and also to determine what needs to be done better next time. This is a great development and decision-making tool as well.

Those leading the debrief should be independent of the situation and trained in debriefing, de-escalation techniques and mental health first aid.  The reason for independence is the participants know the leader doesn’t know what happened.  The leader can ask for further explanation or other questions which could seem biased or harsh if asked by others.  However, because the team knows the leader is trying to understand what occurred, the questions often seem more acceptable.

Debriefing is a potent tool to empower staff, to learn and to collaborate and evolve as a team.

NOTE: The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter, and specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances. The content must not be relied upon as legal, technical, financial or other professional advice.