Workplace teams that debrief outperform those that do not by 20 percent

New paper from Rice University researchers offers tips for successful team debriefing

Teams that debrief following work activities outperform teams that do not debrief by about 20 percent, according to a new paper from researchers at Rice University. The paper said that teams interested in improving performance should allocate ample time and resources for the debriefing process.

Graphic of team being trained. Photo credit:“Team Development: The Power of Debriefing,” which appears in the spring edition of the journal People and Strategy, focuses on how debriefing can impact teamwork activities.

“Think about the best team of which you’ve been a part,” said Eduardo Salas, professor and the Allyn R. and Gladys M. Cline Chair of Psychology. “Chances are, that team wasn’t so good or effective on day one. The best teams become great because they learn from their experiences and they make adjustments to improve performance.”

The researchers showcased a meta-analysis of 46 prior research samples examining team debriefing. Teams varied in size and location within the U.S.

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, Salas said. 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.

While there is no magical, perfect frequency with which to conduct debriefings, Salas said 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.

Salas hopes practitioners will take advantage of this research, particularly those working in the health care industry, where lives depend on good decisions. He noted that “any organization that wants to improve performance of their teams should adopt a form of debriefing.”

By following these debriefing best practices, a team can increase its effectiveness throughout the organization across the board, Salas said.

The paper was coauthored by Denise Reyes, a psychology graduate student at Rice, and Scott Tannenbaum, president of the Group for Organizational Effectiveness.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.