Thursday, January 12, 2012

Be Your Team's Devil's Advocate

I’ve been catching up on reading, and a recent article in the New York Times Business section struck me as useful to share: Every Team Should Have a Devil’s Advocate.  Becoming a devil’s advocate at work has some advantages, and good communication strategies can help you take on that role

There is a legitimate place for a Devil Advocate

A devil’s advocate is someone who raises difficult questions and argues a position or viewpoint that he or she may not necessarily agree with in order to engage others in a discussion. The value of such a discussion is to test the validity of the argument or proposed action, identify weaknesses or invalid assumptions, and improve or abandon the original idea or proposed action.

The name “devil’s advocate” was originally given to a lawyer in 16th century  Europe who was assigned to argue against the Catholic Church’s assertion that a certain person should be made a saint (canonized).  The Devil’s Advocate was supposed to be skeptical and critical, and thus ensure the accuracy by the Church of all evidence of saintly acts by the person being considered.

A devil’s advocate is more than a naysayer

At work, we often dislike skeptics, but we certainly need more of them, according to Ori Hadomi, CEO of Mazor Robotics in Israel. Every Team Should Have a Devil's Advocate Often teams of employees are too positive in their group thinking, or they simply nod at whatever idea senior management suggests, without giving the idea a hard look. Hadomi actually appoints one of his executives to play devil’s advocate. Such a person challenges the group’s thinking, asks the hard questions, and punches holes in assumptions.

How to be an effective devil’s advocate

Following are three strategies for being an effective devil’s advocate:
·        In advance of the meeting, inform the meeting facilitator that you are going to raise some questions. That way the facilitator won’t be caught off-guard and misunderstand your misgivings, will expect you to speak up, and will allow you time to voice questions and concerns.
·        Start your remarks by saying, “I’m going to play devil’s advocate.” Others will know, then, that you are going to raise some hard questions or make comments on the proposal, but that you don’t necessarily agree with all the points.
·        Respond to others’ comments or arguments by saying, “Let’s look at this differently.”  Or,  “What if we make a different assumption?”  Or, “I think we should consider a completely different approach.”  

An effective devil’s advocate enlarges the conversation and ensures that all the issues and concerns are addresses.   If you choose to play devil’s advocate and use the communication strategies I bulleted, you’ll be appreciated at work for your insightful thinking and for helping the group arrive at a solid decision.


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