All Hail The Devil’s Advocate

Why are people afraid of being challenged? I’m not talking about the ‘throw down the gauntlet’, back alley type of challenge, which of course would be unsettling. I’m talking about healthy debate – defending your ideas, and being asked to think otherwise about a certain subject or path of action. Sure, I’m making a sweeping generalization, as there are loads of people who rise to a spirited exchange of ideas, but in my experience, there seem to be many these days who view it as inherently, automatically, and viscerally negative.

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE OR GUARDIAN ANGEL?

Liz Strauss, founder of SOBCon and Successful-Blog.com, wrote recently about Guardian Angels and Devil’s Advocates – and asked the question “Which one would you rather have on your team?” I read this post yesterday, and have been chewing on it ever since. In her post, she categorized the Devil’s Advocate as negative, and the Guardian Angel as positive.

She described them thusly:

“The position of Devil’s Advocate is inherently negative. The role is to find holes in the proposed idea. Arguing for the sake of arguing easily can degrade into arguing for inconsequential details or arguing to show how clever the person presenting the argument can be.”

“The position of Guardian Angel is inherently positive. The role is to find and fill holes in the proposed idea. Arguing for the possibility of what might work, while checking for risk, leads to dialogue that builds and moulds ideas into useful realities.”

FACING THE CHALLENGE

Religious imagery aside, I don’t agree. (Caveat: I tend towards Devil’s Advocacy, but that’s not why I am writing this. Ok, maybe it is. A little.)

If the Devil’s Advocate is looking for holes, it’s to fill them. They are brainstorming, and looking to better an idea or proposed path. They are thinking of the company’s bottom line, and are trying to avoid the cost of cleaning up after something has gone wrong. I know that when I’m ‘playing Devil’s Advocate’, the reason I announce it that way is so as not to insult whoever’s idea it is that I’m challenging. It’s my way of saying “Hey, I’m not asking this to be a jerk, I respect you, but let’s look at it from the other side.” It’s not ‘inherently negative’. And I certainly am not ‘arguing for the sake of arguing’.

Granted, my career for the most part has been in journalism/television production. Trust me. You don’t even know what “Devil’s Advocate” means until you’ve had your story/idea/interview flayed from top to bottom by one of those executives! But I look back on those formative years with appreciation. Being challenged like that daily teaches you think differently, it makes you always question “what else” or “what if”, and it forces you to always look at what you’re producing through the eyes of your audience – your community.

SPEAK OUT LOUD AND PROUD

The problem is fear. I have sat in numerous boardrooms and on many conference calls permeated by fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of being in the spotlight. Fear of upsetting the boss. Fear creates a culture of complacency within an organization and its teams, and inevitably leads to miscommunication and needless extra work being done.

The Harvard Business Review has a great post on this very subject. How speaking up takes confidence, candor, and courage. And yes, both sides of the spectrum need to take responsibility for opening the lines of communication. Employees need to buck up, and not fear that their manager will think poorly about them if they bring up something that she/he doesn’t agree with. And management needs to ensure there are safe spaces where anyone can raise issues without consequences.

But life is funny. And throws a lot of curve balls. And there won’t always be safe spaces. Be proud of who you are. Trust that you have something of value to add. Be prepared to argue your points, thoughts and ideas. And whether you’re the challenged or the challenger, toughen up and don’t take it personally if you get kicked in the ass.

Let’s stop seeing the Devil’s Advocates who actually have the confidence, candor, and courage to speak up and challenge as somehow negative. They might be a little feistier and more fiery than your other employees, but if given the option, I would choose Devil’s Advocate over Guardian Angel any day. And I would most certainly have one on my team.

What do you think? Do you see the value in healthy debate and a good challenge, or do you immediately feel it’s a negative? Would you choose a Devil’s Advocate or a Guardian Angel? Would love to hear your comments! 

9 thoughts on “All Hail The Devil’s Advocate

  1. Most definitley take the devil’s advocate. The more holes filled in lessons the mess that would have to be cleaned up later, which could include finacial loss. It is better to get it done right the first time or at least close enough.

    • Thanks for commenting Renee, I agree. Personally, I prefer the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. Cheers, Lindsay

  2. This is a great post, Linds. In my experience, when you have a group of people working on a project, it always pays to have a “black hatter” or devil’s advocate in the group. It is about having a well rounded set of opinions and viewpoints, where everyone’s opinions are welcome, valued and appreciated. That’s what it takes to move forward in a well thought out, calculated, and thoughtful way. Keep it up.

    • Love that! “Black Hatter”! As Josh Mackey mentioned to me, it does have a lot to do with one’s motivation, as I’m sure there are people out there who simply want to ‘stir it up’. But those people are usually pretty easy to see through. :)

      • Yes, agreed. The people will ill intentions are easily spotted. However, I think the Devil’s Advocate serves a necessary purpose – to prepare you for what may come your way. For those of us working in very outward facing roles, it pays to have someone taking the Devil’s Advocate stance to ensure we’re always covering our six (so to speak).

        • Exactly Trish. Or that’s how *I* see it anyhow. Not as a negative, just as a way to say “hey, this or that might happen if we…” Sort of “Forewarned is forearmed” as they say! Thanks for dropping by! LB

  3. Oh I think I’m safely in the Devil’s Advocate camp. 😉 Not only do I like to get all the “what ifs” out of the way from the start of things….I’m a bit of a trouble-maker and like to stir the pot. 😀 It’s alright, I freely admit it! I think the reason I like doing that is because it *makes people think* – myself included. :)

    • Stirring the pot is ok, as long as that’s not the *only* reason for playing Devil’s Advocate. That tends to be counter productive, as we all know. But stirring in order to shake people out of complacency or make them open their eyes to something else..? I’m all for that! Thanks for the comments Tab! Lindsay

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