When we ignore contrarian thinkers and those who call out injustice, it can alter our ability to make risk intelligent decisions. This article explains the history behind a Devil’s Advocate role, where the phrase comes from (hint: it’s Catholic!), and the benefits of welcoming contrarian points of view.
Listening to the Guardian
For weeks, one of our employees had gone out of her way to share a problem that she believed might get worse. The issue seemed insignificant at the time, so our leadership team ignored it. But our employee was adamant: If we didn’t take action, the issue would snowball and cause significant damage.
She sent emails, spoke up in staff meetings, and had several discussions with members of the team.
Yet we all ignored her.
In fact, we began to talk about her as a “troublemaker.”
“The situation doesn’t really seem that bad. Fixing it would be too much work,” we reasoned.
“She’s blowing everything out of proportion. What does she know, anyway?”
But just a few weeks later, disaster struck. The problems our employee warned us about actually occurred. We had failed to listen to our guardian: as a person who could actually help.
Where Does the Phrase Come From?
If you think about a “Devil,” you probably envision a red creature with horns… someone who is angry, vindictive, malevolent, and determined to lead us down a path of destruction.
The “devil on our shoulder” encourages us to cross lines, break rules, and indulge in destructive behavior.
Read more: Dante’s Inferno From a Strategic Perspective
But the origin of this phrase might surprise you.
This term was first introduced in the early 1500s when the Catholic Church developed an official position called the “Advocatus Diaboli.” or “Advocate for the Devil.” This person’s uncovered any character flaws or untruthful information about a person who was presented for sainthood (or canonization).
The Advocatus Diaboli examined the candidate’s life with a critical eye, looking for reasons to deny the request for canonization.
A Risk Intelligent Response
Because of this negative connotation, the “Devil’s Advocate” is often viewed as a trouble-maker, or a killjoy who takes away our fun, or one who creates unnecessary conflict.
Most leaders prefer to avoid controversy and pessimism. Some business owners even go so far as to enact a “gossip ban,” which is another way of saying “we refuse to hear anything that contradicts our belief system.”
But this would be a mistake.
When leaders are afraid of conflict, it indicates that they are scared of losing control. As a result, they develop a culture of threats and intimidation in an attempt to self-preserve, or to deny reality — simply because it is difficult to hear.
Risk intelligent leaders, however, don’t turn away from difficult conversations; they encourage open discussion and are willing to step into the difficulties that are present in the organization.
Read more: Understanding the Culture of a Company
Devil’s Advocates Support Decision-Making
As language has evolved, the term “Devil’s Advocate” has changed as well. We now use it to describe someone who:
argues against widely agreed beliefs and decisions in an organization, in order to prepare for the worst.
It’s a person who refuses to “go with the flow.” She or he shines a light on potential vulnerabilities that would otherwise cause loss and harm.
She or he forces us to confront prejudice and injustice.
She or he is able to identify disparity and suggest a path to restitution.
Devil’s Advocates can also be a “whistleblower,” someone who reports activities that are unethical or illegal (including waste, loss, fraud, and abuse). Rather than ban all negativity and push out contrarian thinkers, imagine what could happen if we included contrarian thinkers in the decision-making process.
Is it a Person or a Philosophy?
Even in organizations where a contrarian perspective is welcomed, it can be difficult to hear what they have to say. That’s because at its core, the Devil’s Advocate is not necessarily an individual or a role to include on your organizational chart.
The Devil’s Advocate perspective can both a role and a philosophy—a way of thinking in which leaders are open to hearing realities of which they aren’t yet aware.
At its foundation, the philosophy of a Devil’s Advocate is an extension of accumulating Risk Intelligence. It is the ability to effectively distinguish which actions must be avoided to prevent loss or harm, and which actions must be taken to gain a competitive advantage.
To gain risk intelligence, we must step into a situation that may be painful or uncomfortable. Once we do this, we can evaluate the possibility and likelihood that it will cause further harm and take steps to avoid it from happening.
Benefits of Listening to Contrarians
With the input of Devil’s Advocates, we can recognize areas of vulnerability. While it can be frustrating to hear negative feedback, a “contrarian” point of view can avoid expensive mistakes.
By encouraging a Devil’s Advocate philosophy, you will be able to:
- See situations objectively and logically.
- Review situations from an objective, impartial, unbiased point of view.
- Ask logical, results-focused questions.
- Feel less afraid to discuss controversial and touchy subjects.
- Welcome the diverse views of people who may have stayed silent (out of fear, or apathy, or anger).
- Identify aspects of your personality, temperament, communication style, or decision-making methods that may be grating or even harmful to those around you.
- Listen to uncomfortable truths, even when others point out the “Emperor’s New Clothes” in your company.
- Face your fears with brutal honesty.
- Choose to step into uncomfortable situations with an open mind.
- Be courageous in the face of danger.
Welcoming a negative perspective means you’re willing to hear controversy—which allows you to identify all possible risks that stand in the way of reaching your strategic goals.
In the next installment, you will see examples of Devil’s Advocates who stood up against overwhelming odds and had a positive impact on the world.
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