Listening to problems and potentially negative outcomes is not easy or fun, but it’s an important part of avoiding disaster. In this episode (and full transcript below), you’ll hear why Devil’s Advocates are important, what happens when you create a diverse culture, and more!
WWB 009: Who are Your Devil’s Advocates? [Podcast]
06/11/2020 – 21 minutes 35 seconds
Highlights and Take-Aways
You know the image of a Devil on one shoulder and an Angel on the other? The devil is a creature that tells us to give into our passions, break rules, and do things we’re not supposed to do. The angel, on the other hand, tells us to follow the rules, tell the truth, and do the right thing.
But in my experience, doing everything “right” isn’t always best; just because there are rules doesn’t necessarily mean we should follow them. Sometimes, it’s good to question them.
In this episode, I’ll explain what a Devil’s Advocate is and why it’s so important for business owners to listen to people who have negative things to say.
Speaking of the Devil
The Devil is seen as a vindictive, evil creature that leads us down a path of destruction. Everything they tell us to do will lead us to a terrible end. But this image of a trouble-maker isn’t all bad. When we refuse to look at the negatives and avoid all conflicts, this can lead us down a dangerous path. By only focusing on the good and positive, we miss an important analysis process of what could go wrong. It may not be enjoyable to evaluate the negatives, this steps is important to establish control so the worst doesn’t happen to your organization. You can become aware of problems and avoid them, but only if you’re open to hearing what they are.
A Devil’s Advocate is someone who can argue against widely held beliefs or decisions. This person can view a situation objectively and see it from a contrarian point of view—seeing the opposite of what others see. By going against a generally agreed system, they can shine a light on
- what’s going wrong,
- dangerous ways of thinking that cause others to suffer.
Whether or not these problems are obvious to leaders, this type of self-assessment is important. A Devil’s Advocate forces us to confront very difficult topics like prejudice, racism, injustice, and abuse. They offer a reference point to highlight disparities by “blowing a whistle” on activities that go against ethical standards, illegal, waste, or fraud. Having someone like this in your organization is a wonderful tool.
But many times, leaders don’t want to hear from a Devil’s Advocate. It is painful to be told that there may be abuse happening in your organization… even if it’s true. They tend to defend themselves and may even use legal measures to downplay or even harass and intimidate those who are calling out the injustice.
Offering this role can be very difficult for someone who is inside the company, especially if the organization places a limit on open communication. When they label feedback as “gossip” or “negativity,” this becomes a slippery slope. Leaders may feel that unpleasant information is not positive or that it doesn’t align with their view, so they decide to suppress it and may even remove the nay-sayers from the organization. I believe it is extremely dangerous to suppress feedback from employees. In companies where whistleblowers who speak out against unethical or illegal behavior (such as Enron), the intimidation or unjust firing or harassment didn’t stop employees from speaking out. And in the end, the truth will come out—with disastrous PR results to the organization. How can a company that looks so successful end up failing so miserably? It’s because a system was in place that rewarded the Yes-People and that discouraged or harmed Devil’s Advocates who spoke out negatively.
Welcoming discussions from Devil’s Advocates, whether they are working in conjunction with your leadership or independent of your direction, is a very risk intelligent thing to do.
Devil’s Advocate: Person or Philosophy?
I’ve been asked whether this role should be assigned to a particular person, or whether it is an overarching way of thinking. The answer? It’s really both: it’s a way of examining problems and evaluating the truth of whether your company’s responses align with your strategic goals, or whether they differ.
This is why it’s so important to have defined goals for your organization, and also to have a clear set of values. When you are questioned about whether a situation disagrees with your core values, it will be much easier to know which actions are appropriate. But if you haven’t defined what is most important and what your organization is trying to achieve, you won’t have an answer when your team is faced with a dilemma.
First, you need to start with defining your Vision, Mission, Values, Objectives, and Measures (which I call VMVOM). These are the basic components of a strategic plan:
- Vision: “What does a perfect future look like?”
- Mission: “Why do we exist, and who do we serve?”
- Values: “What guides our behavior to others?”
- Objectives: “Where are we going, and How will we get there?” and
- Measures: “How will we know when we’ve arrived?”
Then, you should define whether you have a philosophy of not punishing those who speak out. Make sure you have a mechanism where employees and customers can bring negative information to you and can present information that certain activities may be going against your values and principles.
Next, use this philosophy of viewing problems as an opportunity for change, and make sure it’s part of your company’s culture. A culture is the way people interact, and it’s the expectation of habits and values that impact the organization: exchanging ideas and getting along. Your culture will elevate certain behavior, and it will discourage or punish other behavior.
You can see how this can become problematic: if you don’t define your core values, you may subconsciously create a culture that rewards a narrow set of behaviors, but that doesn’t allow for any diversity of thought. When owners don’t define an Equity Statement or choose to include team members who are different than them, their organization will become homogeneous; there won’t be any diversity or outside-the-box perspectives. In companies without a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, some individuals will not feel heard, and this opens up significant risks that are difficult to defend.
A risk intelligent perspective will allow you to avoid actions that cause loss or harm, and instead choosing actions that will gain you a competitive advantage. By welcoming the opinions of people who see things differently, you will gain a more inclusive perspective and gain insights about how to overcome challenges and help your business to grow.
Diversity of thought will allow your business to be more successful. Risk intelligence requires the ability to step into situations that may be uncomfortable or even painful—but it allows you to evaluate the possibility and likelihood of situations that will cause harm. An openness to hearing “bad news” will increase your ability to tell what could hurt your organization.
The Devil’s Advocate perspective can help you to recognize areas of vulnerability. You will be able to acknowledge your personal bias (which we all have!) and become aware of the steps you take in decision-making. It also rewards discussion that focuses on results, instead of only focusing on emotion. Obviously our emotional experience is still valid and important, and our values are tied to what we believe is important to defend. But when we’re evaluating progress toward reaching goals, it is better to look at the situation logically and review the data.
It is really helpful to have a Devil’s Advocate point of view when you are wrestling with controversial or touchy subjects. We discussed this in episode 7, Honeybee, Scorpion, and Nuclear Employees. The honeybee wants to make a difference but don’t know how to communicate the problem, so they take a chance by sharing something that is important even if it could cause them to suffer. If their feedback is not acknowledged and acted upon, they can become a Scorpion—employees who are much louder in an attempt to make a positive change. The Scorpion employee can be satisfied, but it takes a lot of work for the employer to bridge that gap; and in the meantime, they could cause damage to the organization. The most damaging level is with Nuclear employees, who don’t care about the company succeeding; they just want to destroy it.
Listen to the entire episode here: Honeybee, Scorpion, and Nuclear Employees
Employees who don’t feel heard will often continue to speak up in an attempt to make sure the management team listens to what they have to say. In trying to contribute information that they believe is useful, they are risking a lot:
- Their sense of belonging and inclusion in the organization
- Respect from peers and managers
- Their income and job stability
A Devil’s Advocate is most effective when the leadership decides they want to hear these conversations. They want to consider topics that feel uncomfortable. They want to identify aspects of their own temperament, personality type, communication style, and the way they make decisions that may be ineffective… or that are even causing people to get hurt. But these conversations can bring about so much growth—not just for you as a leader, but for your management team and the entire organization. You can welcome insights into how the company can provide more value to customers, but also feel a sense of meaning.
Millennials (the generation of people born between 1981 and 1996) are often very interested in seeing a purpose in what they do, rather than just focusing on earning money. Millennials are generally not afraid to speak up and to rally their peers in taking action to correct problems. So whether or not you want to hear from Devil’s Advocates, you most likely will at some point… and if you create a structured method to receive feedback, it is a very useful way to gather and apply changes, even if you’re unaccustomed to hearing negativity.
Keeping Control of Devil’s Advocates
One of the problems with Devil’s Advocates is knowing how to maintain control. I’ve heard this concern from clients, and I have been asked to provide this perspective in order to understand what’s wrong from an objective, outside point of view. When this role comes from someone inside the organization, it can feel threatening to the owner and management team to hear negativity and not what to do about it. Hearing about problems could feel like an attack; and of course, when we feel attacked we want to defend and protect from further harm. So it’s hard to know how to manage negative voices and criticisms.
As I mentioned before, a great way to manage negative feedback is to design a system where it is welcomed and reviewed. You could start by explaining to staff that you want to hear what is going wrong and prove that there is a resolution process and that changes will be applied in a timely manner. Completing a Healthy Feedback Loop is helpful, because it proves to employees that you follow through on your promises. While many owners say they want to hear what is going wrong, actually facing it can be too painful… so they backtrack and avoid conversations about problems that are obvious to everyone else. This is an ineffective way to deal with bad news, because it indicates that leaders don’t care. Avoiding painful topics puts a wedge between those who convey the problems, and those who can fix it.
Employees tend to respond in one of four ways when they don’t trust their leaders to solve a problem:
- Attempt to fix the problem themselves
- Become apathetic and don’t care
- Leave the organization
- Get angry and loud about their dissatisfaction (Scorpion and Nuclear employees)
It’s much better for a leader to step into uncomfortable situations and face the problem directly, rather than a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response.
She or he can use a structured method to collect feedback and act on it. Simply listening is not enough; there must be a way to evaluate what to apply, and then to demonstrate that something is happening to correct the injustice and bring about lasting change.
A Devil’s Advocate perspective means that you’re open to hearing controversial topics, and that you welcome these discussions in your company. Yes, you need to limit the way in which this happens—in order to avoid a rebellion, strike, or walk-out. I think this is the #1 fear that a lot of people have when it comes to hearing from angry employees. But there are many ways to create a culture that encourages open discussion, in which you welcome differences of opinion and don’t shy away from facing problems directly. As long as you stay focused on the ultimate goals for your organization and on how you can provide value to customers, you’ll find that employees have a lot of amazing things to offer in order to overcome problems and move you closer to those goals.
In summary, Devil’s Advocates are incredibly important. They are both a type of person who is willing to bring negative information to your attention, but it’s also a philosophy where everyone is invited to discuss topics that are difficult to consider but that need to be said because harm or damage is happening. Leaders who want to step into tough conversations and deal with things that cause pain to others show that you’re the type of person who can be followed. You demonstrate that you’re trustworthy and that employees can bring feedback that will help solve problems. But leaders who want to escape controversial topics (the Flight response), or who push it aside (Fight) or don’t know how to respond (Freeze), employees won’t respect them as much. Customers don’t respect leaders who avoid recognizing problems, because how a leader handles difficult decisions will eventually become very obvious both inside and outside the company.
I hope you welcome Devil’s Advocates who are already in your organization and create a culture that rewards bad news and discussion about difficult topics. When you do that, your company will be positioned to serve customers’ needs more effectively and support your employees at the same time.
Read more: Company Culture FAQs
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Grace LaConte is a business strategist, writer, and workplace equity advocate whose risk management graphics are used around the globe. She specializes in finding hidden threats and opportunities in organizations that employ working parents. Grace is the host of the What’s Wrong with Your Business? Podcast, which provides tools to adapt in a rapidly changing market.