Psychological Safety and Top Gun Debriefing

A Navy F/A-18 Hornet on final approach to USS Nimitz

by Jack Liles

Psychological Safety is often defined as a workplace environment that encourages reasonable risk-taking, innovation and creative thinking, absent the personal fear of being negatively criticized or ostracized by the workgroup or team.

When I was flying with Navy squadrons deployed aboard aircraft carriers, we fostered and thrived in our own psychologically safe culture, primarily through the practice of Debriefing.

We essentially Debriefed everything:  Individual flights, larger missions, our strategic plans, safety initiatives, maintenance work and overall team/squadron performance.

And because the Debriefs were an effective, safe, impersonal and objective effort to learn from mistakes and reinforce successes, our culture encouraged aggressive and innovative problem solving, leadership and execution.

Much is being written and practiced today around “celebrating failure”. Psychologically safe work environments are most definitely about encouraging innovation, and subsequent failures, without the fear of repercussions or reprisals.

The practice of Debriefing supports this effort to build culture and teams that find new and better ways of solving problems, and adapt progressively and proactively to changing technology, markets and opportunities.


A key to the effective practice of supporting failure and psychological safety is context. Failure, or mistakes, are accepted as a by-product of progressive business practices as long as they fit within the context of reasonable and safe boundaries.

We didn’t buzz our jets under the Golden Gate Bridge or do a tower fly-by because we knew we’d be forgiven in the Debrief.

Similarly, I wouldn’t want to create an environment that encourages a sales person to invent their own unseen pricing scheme and present it to a customer, just because the resultant failure might be “safely” Debriefed later. Every business model or team must understand their relevant context of risk and failure, and the boundaries and parameters within which failure can be accepted constructively.

Learning from Failure and Success

Debriefing reinforces that mistakes and failures are an inevitable part of risk-taking, and that a critical outcome is the lessons we learn from both successes and failures.

The most powerful benefit of Debriefing is that over time, it teaches us how to get better. With transparency, accountability, and within a safe spirit of continuous improvement. A culture of Debriefing doesn’t allow for CYA, blame-gaming or spinning.

But Debriefing also works to reinforce and celebrate successes and wins as well. Breaking down successful business engagements and learning from them is just as important as learning from those that went wrong.

Businesses, however, just like fighter squadrons, need to ensure they’re succeeding more than failing, or at least trending in a successful direction. Hence my insistence that we need context and parameters around “celebrating failure”.

A good Debrief is a fruitful, humbling, constructive and positive experience. It takes the concept of psychological safety and transforms it into a day-to-day practice that promotes continuous learning and improvement. A culture that Debriefs promotes innovation, intelligent risk-taking, and creativity.

Get in touch if I can help your organization begin exploring how Debriefing can help you create  psychological safety within your culture.

#debrief  #psychologicalsafety  #continousimprovement  #leadership  

Jack Liles is a Partner at TechCXO, providing on-demand Chief Sales Officer duties to client companies in need of go-to-market plan development, improved sales performance, leadership and structure. Jack is a veteran Naval Officer and recovering F-14 Tomcat flyer. Following his service, Jack earned leadership roles at the ad agency Leo Burnett, Coca-Cola, UPS and at numerous successful (and unsuccessful) start-ups. Connect with Jack at

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