Dealing with the 'Devil's Advocate' in your team
Manish and his team gave a wonderful presentation to the board about a product which they thought will be revolutionary in its segment. Manish’s boss was impressed, so were most of the board members – they were almost in unison to give the project a go-ahead till one of the Board members interjected with a ‘But’. The only person who didn’t think the idea was fool proof. He gave reasons where the project needs to look deeply to avoid pitfalls. Something all of them had missed.
Based on new research from Stanford Graduate School of Business, “It’s important for teams to have a devil’s advocate who is constructive and careful in communication, who carefully and artfully facilitates discussion,” says Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford GSB.
Agrees Rupak Agarwal, Business Head at Godrej Properties, “Leaders need to encourage diverse views in discussions to get a holistic perspective before taking a decision. Critics are absolutely necessary in a team. However, my view would be not to brand an individual as a critic but to encourage every one in the team to also think and articulate possible red flags. Simple questions like ‘What do you think can go wrong?’ ‘is there anything that you feel we are missing?’ go a long way in encouraging team members to think from all perspectives and put customer insights and ground realities on the table before decision making.”
Hiring different kinds of managers/team leaders is a must for CEOs. They bring to the table varied perspectives and those make conversations more constructive. This is where Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats come into picture – “The Black Hat is judgment - the devil's advocate or why something may not work. Spot the difficulties and dangers; where things might go wrong. Probably the most powerful and useful of the Hats but a problem if overused.”
This is what is echoed by Rajiv Naithani, Head HR at 3DPLM Software Solutions Limited. He said, “I always hire people who are different than me. It is always important to have people who are different and bring diversified perspective in the team. When it comes to critics, it is blessing in disguise as they are the one who helps in bringing creativity in the team… Critic of topic or issue in hand really helps. It is like one of the hat (i.e. Black) of Six Thinking Hat which is essential to anticipate possible issues around a new initiative so that we can easily plan to mitigate them before rubber hit the road.”
And people who wear the Black Hat too often have to be cautious about one thing. That they should be critical when it is required; they should keep in mind about not attacking the person because of a personal disliking. “Criticism should always be of the issue and not of the people. If any team member acts as critic of people it does not result into any benefit to team rather creates negativity,” said Rajiv.
Dealing with the Devil’s Advocate
Lindred Greer along with her research colleagues Ruchi Sinha of the University of South Australia, Niranjan Janardhanan of the University of Texas, Donald Conlon of Michigan State University, and Jeff Edwards of the University of North Carolina, found out that 'the devil’s advocate — which could be an individual or a small minority — has the sensitivity to see differences, perceives them as conflict, and then communicates about the differences in non-confrontational ways. The researchers came to their conclusions in two studies. In the first, 571 post-grad students at a top business school in India were assigned to 120 teams. They were asked to participate in a decision-making game and then asked to rate the conflict on their teams. In a second study, the researchers surveyed members of 41 pre-existing teams at a large financial corporation in the Netherlands. The research found out that teams with a lone minority dissenter outperform other teams where all members agree.'
“The best way of dealing with critics is to encourage them to speak their mind, substantiate their point of view with related examples and listen to them intently. Make them feel that their views are important to you. Once you have heard the perspectives, you as a leader should take a balanced view. Take the decision keeping all perspectives in mind. It is not always necessary to incorporate their suggestions but yes, encourage them to speak fearlessly for you to take a pragmatic decision,” said Rupak.
A healthy disagreement is of utmost important and the best way to do that is to appreciate the ‘devil’s advocates’ on their “diversified thoughts which enable new doors for improvement at the same time, setting right expectations upfront in those areas where there is no room for changes and hence they should be motivated to appreciate the positive sides of such initiatives,” said Rajiv.
So are you the Devil’s Advocate of your team?