We can all do with a few truth-tellers in our lives since we all occasionally succumb to phony behavior or groupthink. They can encourage beginner’s mind and innovation in our organization.
Another name for a truth-teller is a devil’s advocate. The phrase 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. This person was typically looking for character flaws that would disqualify the candidate from being elevated to sainthood.
Ancient truth-tellers included the court jester who had permission to give royals candid feedback without the risk of having his/her head chopped off. Our modern court jesters are our comedians like Trevor Noah who split our sides with laughter and blow our minds with truth.
In a similar fashion a DA in an organization “kicks its tires” by challenging the ideas of others.
However, how exactly does a person have to behave to be an effective DA? Here are some best practices.
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. They just love a good fight. One such person on observing two people in an argument asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?”
2. Always contradict what others say
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. They view themselves as ultimate Subject Matter Experts. 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. Typically such persons are new to an organization, from a different cultural background, and have professional experience that is not the same as the majority of the group members.
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. He/she needs the endorsement and protection of the organization or senior leaders for the DA role.
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 or accepted wisdom.
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. The new insights you bring to the table are opened up by the curiosity and beginners mind that you foster in your group with your DA role.
5. Balance truth-telling with diplomacy
Recently a friend of mine had to resign from her job because the organization pushed back on her truth-telling. That reminds me of a recent book title “The Truth Will Set You Free. But First it Will Piss You Off”. DA’s need to walk the tightrope of balancing being candid with the level of tolerance in the organization for truth-teling. Not always an easy task. Here truth-telling requires both courage and wisdom.