A Positive perspective on the Post-Incident Debrief


Recently, I have been discussing the business of debriefing with one of my clients. Even before the pandemic hit, this large academic institution was working with me to bring a Positive Working perspective to incident leaders, operational managers, and response teams. Now, though, they are emerging from a prolonged, real-life stress test that has been just about as serious as any we might imagine. It’s got them thinking about the need to re-evaluate their post-incident capabilities, and it’s got me thinking as well…

My career saw the beginnings of crisis management and I stayed in that space until 2017. In the late 1990s, the world was becoming more volatile. Organisations began to recognise their vulnerabilities, turning to military and emergency service specialists for guidance. A new consultancy sector was born – based around a cycle of incident anticipation, simulation, and debriefing.

Reflecting back, what strikes me now is that the focus was (and actually, still is) very much on process, framework and structure. Debrief questions typically centred on the “what” and the “how” with the aim of improving future responses.

Here’s the thing, though…in my view we’ve always been missing a crucial piece of the jigsaw – and that’s the “people” element. How did the leadership style impact team performance? Did cognitive or ego bias in the team dynamic affect our response? How did communication styles come into play? What behaviours could we adapt moving forward into the next incident? All of that great stuff – the Positive Working perspective – still seems to sit firmly outside the debrief room. And so, processes and frameworks move forward but behaviours remain the same.

Crisis management hierarchy and the human factor

Let’s consider the crisis management hierarchy for a moment. Typically, we’ll have three levels:

Gold: the strategic team, almost certainly at C-Suite level.

Silver: the tactical team – senior managers and department heads.

Bronze: the delivery team, who get the tasks done.

All three play a vital role during an incident, but to improve strategy and tactics moving forwards we need to pay attention to those with ownership. That means engaging in potentially challenging conversations with some pretty senior people – and that can be a politically tricky process.

Moving to 2022, we’re now in a situation where organisations have been managing an ongoing crisis for two years. And other stuff happens too - even during a pandemic. So, we always need to know that our leaders and teams are match fit for the next incident. But, without giving them the time to reflect, recover and replenish, how can we really establish that? Now is a great time to ask exactly that question and reframe the incident debrief narrative.

Changing the mindset around the debrief process

So, how do we start shifting from a process-centric to a positive, people-focused debrief style? Here are three key strategies to get started:

1) Rewrite the social contract

The more senior a person is, the more likely they are to be asked to lead an incident team. And that is an extremely exposing place to be – one where traditionally the gold standard is entirely defined by the ability to get it right under pressure. To achieve meaningful, transparent learning, we need to change that contract. Incident leaders are the chosen few in their organisations. We can (and should) support and reward their efforts with a safe, one-to-one space after every incident, to explore their learning from a professional and a personal perspective. They, in return, should be willing to reflect honestly on their performance and behaviours so that the organisation and its leaders can learn and move forward together.

2) Move to 1:1 coaching

For all sorts of reasons, debriefs usually happen in a group context. But it’s unrealistic (and actually, unfair) to expect senior leaders to scrutinise themselves in front of their teams. It is also potentially unfair to task someone within the organisation with engaging senior people on what might be challenging topics. In this area, it is often better to bring in an external coach who can explore post-incident learning at a senior level without internal dynamics skewing the process.

3) Adopt a Positive Working mindset

Organisations are increasingly recognising the need to nurture their people’s strengths, wellbeing and resilience for optimal performance. Yes, debriefing is an essential activity to improve crisis management moving forwards. But it can also be a safe space for leaders to explore their own behaviours, strengths, and style. When did they perform at their best during the incident? What did that look like? What strategies did they harness to maintain wellbeing and resilience? What did they find most challenging? What support do they need moving forwards to maintain optimal performance?

By bringing these positively focused questions into a 1:1 debrief, we don’t just help our leaders to reflect, recover and replenish from that one incident. We also enable them to consider, understand and embed the best of their behaviours and strengths into their entire role moving forwards. And that can only be a positive outcome, for leaders, people and organisations alike.

More Positive Working resources for leadership development:

Moving to hybrid working? Explore what a positive leadership perspective can bring to the table.

Explore the 5 leadership capabilities for Positive Working and how before nine's services can help.

Or, if this blog resonates with you, why not reach out and talk to us about bringing a Positive Working perspective to your incident teams and leaders.