While many leadership models emphasize communicating a powerful vision and motivating the troops, in reality, listening to them is more effective in gaining their trust. A grandiose shared vision can certainly become a rallying point around which you build your team, but remember that each person will interpret the vision differently, based on their individual cognitive biases and perspectives.
The fact that one can’t truly share a common experience with another with 100% sameness is worsened by poor communication, which further exacerbates a lack of understanding, mistrust and often, failed commitments. For trust to develop there must be a mandate to listen and communicate honestly… and a structure to ensure it. In the SEALs, the structure we use is the brief-debrief process. Let’s look more closely at these tools, each of which serve a different purpose.
The brief is done prior to any training evolution or mission and is a precise way to convey critical information to the team. It is also when the team gets to ask questions to clarify intent about the mission and their role in it. Without an effective briefing process, mission effectiveness would decrease substantially.
The debrief occurs after the mission is completed, and is the primary mechanism for fostering continuous feedback and course corrections. During the debrief, the team reviews every facet of the mission for information that can lead to improvements in individual or team performance. Any issues with regard to the organization’s structure that impacted the mission can be noted for follow-up with the chain of command. The process is simple, but not easy to employ because it assumes that a high level of trust and accountability already exist in the team.
The process is as follows:
- Debrief as soon as possible after completing a mission. The team leader will usually moderate or they can designate someone else to facilitate. Allow everyone to speak in a round-robin approach—all teammates should be encouraged to find something to say, and sometimes the quiet ones have the most interesting contributions.
- Everything that happened on the mission, good, bad, or ugly, is on the table for discussion. This includes personal and team performance, lessons learned screw-ups as well as breakthroughs, and innovations that occurred spontaneously during the course of the mission. You can either chunk the topics to focus the conversation or just go around the table and see what comes up.
- Challenging issues are presented with an attitude of improving performance and not putting anyone down. Though it may be hard to not take it personally, over time the teammates learn to seek this type of direct feedback for the learning it provides. For the sake of the session, egos are checked at the door and any personal disputes are dealt with in private. What is said in the debrief about personal performance stays in the debrief unless corrective action is required at the organizational level. Teammates learn to trust the team as they observe their leader and peers respecting this boundary and not gossiping about a screw-up. If the meeting veers off track, the facilitator informally interdicts with the “feed the courage wolf” exercise and brings focus back to the facts.
- Analyze every item for ways to improve at an individual, team, or organizational level. In other words, the debrief is not a bitch session. Time is spent judiciously with an eye toward continuous refinement of the team’s winning culture.
- Note action items and follow up on them by making changes in individual training plans or operational, administrative, or logistics processes.
The team debrief was one of the tools I introduced to the U.S. women’s cycling team in their run-up to the 2012 London Olympics. When they brought me in as a consultant, they were having trouble communicating with their coaching staff and had trust issues internally; they had never worked together for more than a couple of weeks at a time and were now together daily for more than two and a half months. As individuals, they were accustomed to being top performers, but as a team, they were five long seconds out of the running for a medal.
First, I encouraged the most experienced athlete in the group, Jennie, to assume a leadership role in communicating honestly and directly with the coaching staff. We created a moment after every training session to debrief—first, just amongst the athletes themselves; and then with their coaches involved. Soon, the conversations in the debrief transformed from negative bitching: “the coaches are making us do this and it’s not working!” to a positive “we’re doing exactly what we know, as the athletes, will bring a medal within reach.” They learned not to fear breakdowns and conflict and to communicate effectively as an elite team. The team shocked the cycling world by beating the heavily favored Australian team in the semifinals, then went on to win a silver medal against Great Britain.
For the brief and debrief to work well, teammates must be good listeners. I highly recommend practicing the Authentic Communication exercise at a team level as part of the debrief process. This will help you quiet the critical voice in your head so you can better tune in to what your teammate is saying, and your teammates will learn to do the same—you will learn to truly listen to one another and, perhaps most important of all, to truly hear one another.
4 C’s of Team Communication
I have four rules for elite team communications I call the 4 C’s. Communication must be:
You are always communicating with total transparency and clarity. The brief and debrief are the formal tools. Those are for constant learning and to point out gaps. It is in the informal team communications are where a lot of the developmental work it did. Constant communication is not jabber, it is practical and precise. What I mean is that if there is an issue, deal with it NOW. Don’t let things fester or get swept under the rug. This requires practice.
Clear, simple language is nectar. Meditation and the Witness Process help to refine our language. I mentioned earlier, cultivate the capacity to speak only if what you have to say is truthful, relevant and useful and positive. This eliminates like 80% of the bullshit that is communicated daily across most organizations.
Handle the critical conversations as soon as possible. These are the tough ones, where you need to call someone out for their behavior, a failure, or fire them. I went through a process for critical conversations in lesson 9.
We grow through challenge, and conversations that challenge your perspective, status quo, pet political or religious beliefs are VERY GOOD for you. Don’t run from them, or attack the challenger. These are your opportunities, as St Francis says, to “seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” Moreover, they are your, and the team’s opportunity to grow from each other and to develop greater trust and authenticity.