The phrase Devil’s Advocate (DA) originally came from the Latin Advocatus Diaboli. This was a role prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church to an official who argued against the appointment of individuals to sainthood. He was typically looking for character flaws that would disqualify the person from being elevated to sainthood.
In a similar fashion, a DA in an organization “kicks its tires” by challenging the ideas of others.
The process insures diversity of thought and opens the way for innovation.
However, how exactly does a person have to behave to be an effective DA? Here are some do’s and don’ts.
1. Confuse being a devil’s advocate with an oppositional personality.
Such personality types love being contrarians with the compulsion to argue every position. Their goal is not to seek the best solution for the organization through consensus.
It reminds me of the contrarian who asked folks who were having an argument, “Is this a private argument or can anyone join in?”
2. Always contradict what others are saying
An ineffective devil’s advocate always needs to be right and does not tolerate other opinions. The typical communication style is telling and not facilitating since they typically view themselves as the ultimate Subject Matter Expert. Dealing with their self-assured posture is like running into a brick wall. You go nowhere fast and come away with a severe headache.
The key to being effective as a DA is to find ways to build on what others say with yes/and responses rather than yes/but interactions.
3. Be a jerk
A true test of whether a person is acting like a jerk in a group setting is that everyone comes away from the experience with a bad taste. A jerk is someone with a major personality disorder and needs to be shunted out of group discussions as quickly as possible. This requires skilled management abilities where firm ground rules are set for participation in a group
1. Add to the diversity of thought in the group
Someone who adds to the diversity of thought in the group increases the possibility of innovation. In so doing a DA forces the group to see things in new and different ways.
2. Respectfully challenge leaders.
The other day a senior executive told me how to one of his reports challenged him on his proposed strategy. He said, “I found it very refreshing to be challenged by one of my junior staff. He forced me to see issues in a totally different light
3. Protect the messenger
In organizations where conformity to authority is the cultural norm the devil’s advocate is typically silenced. A person who can raise critical questions in a constructive way is crucial to the success of any group and is worth his/her weight in gold.
4. Push the boundaries
The DA is not constrained by the plea “we have always done things this way”. He/she would typically ask “Why?” The key to the success of this questioning style is that the organization gives permission and encourages others to call into question its very tenets.
So go ahead and encourage the role of a DA in any of your organization’s group discussions. The sky will not fall down but the world of creativity will open up before your very eyes.
I know a highly successful IT Executive who fulfills the DA role exceptionally well. He describes his personal brand as one where he “breaks glass”. He was tasked with totally reshaping the IT business in his organization and broke all the rules in doing so.
How have you been an effective Devil’s Advocate?