Every team has roles that need to be filled to be successful. A good team has a diverse set of members who have different perspectives, experiences, points of view, and styles. This prevents blind spots and groupthink that can lead the team down dangerous paths and to poor performance.
One of the key roles that teams often get wrong is that of the devil's advocate. This is the person on the team who takes an opposing point of view and brings up contrary evidence and perspective. It's a key role to help make sure the team isn't missing a critical piece of information or failing to consider other options.
In 1587, the Catholic Church established the role of advocatus diaboli as part of the process of declaring someone a saint. The purpose of the role was to present counter-evidence of sainthood and to find holes in the events presented as miracles. One of the most famous examples was when the atheist author Christopher Hitchens was asked to testify against Mother Teresa.
What the Church has long realized, and what good teams come to learn, is that without someone to present contrary evidence and an alternative opinion, you risk missing other opportunities and making big mistakes. It's a risk that you can't afford to take and one that's easy to avoid.
However, many teams get the role wrong. Instead of inhabiting a key role necessary to improve decisions and results, a bad devil's advocate will just be argumentative and create friction on the team. Here are the right ways to make sure your team is taking everything into consideration.
1. Attack the ideas, not the people
Ad hominem attacks are not helpful. The goal of the devil's advocate is not to question a person's character or credibility. In fact, doing so will only hurt personal relationships and prevent others from presenting their ideas or opinions.
Instead, focus on the idea being presented and stick to the merits and soundness of the arguments being made. Question the evidence and the conclusions by providing additional or alternative data, logic, or experiences. Do so respectfully and avoid making your comments personal or demeaning.
2. Provide solid logic and rationale
A good devil's advocate will present new and valid data and sound thinking. It's not just about being argumentative and saying you don't like something. Focus on providing different examples and data sets that can be used to draw different insights and conclusions. Your goal is to get the team to consider other options and positions, not to personally discredit someone else on the team.
3. Offer new alternatives
One of the best things you can do as the devil's advocate is to offer new and alternative options. Instead of just undermining and undercutting another idea, focus on providing a different path. Even if the suggestion isn't totally viable or thought out, it can promote discussion and debate that can lead to other ideas and directions.
4. Serve the team, not your personal agenda
One of the situations I see a lot on dysfunctional teams is when an individual uses the devil's advocate role to advance a personal agenda or grind an ax they have with another team member. This is neither appropriate nor helpful. Instead, focus on serving the team's agenda to efficiently reach a better outcome.
If you see someone not acting in the best interests of the team, the best thing to do is to ask that person to clarify their logic and rationale. If they can't articulate a valid reason, the team should consider their point and then move on and focus on other issues.
5. Know when enough is enough
The point of the devil's advocate is to advance the team's thinking and the quality of their decision making, not to grind discussion to a halt and stymie the team's progress. When you feel like you've exhausted the value of a line of reasoning or that the team is ready to move forward, it's time to step out of the role and move on.
6. Switch it up
The devil's advocate role is key on any team and it's important that every team has one. However, it's best not to let it be the same person every time. If one person is always the naysayer, it will create a rut for everyone. Instead, switch it up and make sure everyone develops the skill and can take the role when needed.
I often see teams who are "playing too nice" and fail to engage in critical debate and challenge one another. Introducing the idea of a devil's advocate will help raise the bar on the team's discussion and help them reach better solutions more quickly.