By: Wilma Slenders
In the 15th century, a devil’s advocate was appointed to bring up objections to, and reasons why an individual should not be canonized as a saint. The role continues in business today and is used to argue against a certain path or plan of action. Similar to the historical DA, the individual is assigned to play a role, versus truly believing in the position being argued.
Often, in idea generation or problem solving processes, a devil’s advocate is assigned to play a contrarian role and to argue opposing viewpoints. The challenge with this is that it is a role. When individuals play a role at the superficial level, it is not the same as wholeheartedly believing in the position or perspective.
So, how can organizations leverage the idea of having a devil’s advocate, but not make it a role?
In all organizations, there are people who hold divergent views and who challenge the status quo. In most organizations, these individuals are seen as troublemakers, rabble rousers, and boat rockers! You likely know who they are in your workplace.
Rather than marginalize them and shut them out, why not embrace their divergent views to make the organization better? Why not encourage these views, that often make us uncomfortable, as providing a more rounded perspective?
Finding individuals who hold dissenting and divergent opinions can be helpful in truly understanding a counter argument. Adam Grant states “Dissenting opinions are helpful, even when they are wrong” (p. 185).
Dissenting opinions are definitely helpful, however, the organization needs to want to hear those views, support the individuals that voice them, and take them seriously as part of the innovation process. In organizations where these voices are not valued and are suppressed, it is challenging to engage others in this process. There should not be any repercussions for supporting different views.
Charlan Nemeth, one of the world’s leading experts on group decisions research found that groups with authentic dissenters generated 48% more solutions than those with an assigned devil’s advocate and the solutions were of higher quality (Grant, 2016, p. 193).
How can you incorporate this concept?
- Create, implement and supporta policy of openness so that individuals feel empowered to speak their minds freely.
- Hold others accountable for speaking their minds, and encourage them to do so. This makes people get behind their opinions to foster innovation.
- Don’t punish individuals for holding dissenting opinions or views. Rather, seek to understand those views and how they might inform direction being taken and decisions being made.
- Use dissenting views to create better solutions by embracing them rather than discounting them.
- What will you do to encourage greater divergent thinking in your organization?
Grant, A. (2016). Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.Penguin Books, New York.