How often have you heard someone say “just to play the devil’s advocate?” I’m a big fan of the devil’s advocate role when used properly, but even I cringe when this expression comes to mean “Everybody fasten your seatbelts, I’m about to be a jerk.”  That’s what happens when aggressive people use the devil’s advocate line to excuse their adversarial behavior.

The devil’s advocate role is also distorted by conflict-avoidant people wanting to cover their true opposition to issues. “It’s not that I don’t like your idea, I’m just playing the devil’s advocate.” Neither of those is the intended role of the devil’s advocate. It’s time that we bring back the devil’s advocate role and use it properly to benefit our teams.

Before you can be an effective devil’s advocate, you need to know the origin of the role.

According to Wikipedia, the role of the advocatus diaboli (devil’s advocate) was established in 1587 as the official lawyer appointed by the Catholic Church to provide evidence against canonization (being recognized as a Saint). The job was to be skeptic, to poke holes, and generally to keep the standards for Sainthood very high. Just like in most legal roles, the devil’s advocate was expected to argue strongly against canonization regardless of his personal opinion of the merit of the candidate.

Here’s how to play the important role of Devil’s Advocate well.

Focus on the evidence.

The devil’s advocate was not there to speak ill of the candidate being canonized. Instead, he was there to focus on the quality and veracity of the evidence that miracles had been performed. The devil’s advocate was there to point out alternate, non-divine, explanations for the observed outcomes. To be a good devil’s advocate, question the evidence and offer alternate conclusions based on the same data. “I see the numbers from the customer survey, is it possible they could be interpreted differently?”  DO NOT ATTACK THE PERSON.

Don’t hide behind the term.

If you actually don’t agree with the evidence being presented, you are not questioning it just to test. That means you’re not playing the devil’s advocate. If you believe the idea isn’t a good one, say so nicely and directly. “I’m worried that given what we know, this isn’t the right way to proceed. I think the level of investment is too high.”  Your credibility will suffer if you can’t confidently bring a dissenting opinion to the table.

Take the other side sometimes.

If you are always the devil’s advocate, just opening your mouth might cause others to get their backs up. You need to leave the role to someone else. If no one is forthcoming, try asking. “I’m getting tired of always being the devil’s advocate, is there someone who would be willing to play that role today?”

Rejoice if you’re unsuccessful.

As a high ranking member of the Catholic Church, the devil’s advocate was ultimately happy if they were unsuccessful in their attempts to disprove the evidence of Sainthood. More evidence of miracles on earth was considered a good thing. The same should be true for you. If you are unsuccessful at poking holes in the support for a given course of action, embrace it. “I’m really glad that this plan held up to our scrutiny. I’m feeling confident, let’s get it done!” Otherwise, you’re a naysayer, not a devil’s advocate.

I’m always glad to see someone willing to introduce healthy conflict into a team. Done as it was intended, the devil’s advocate role can reduce groupthink and the risk of everyone thinking alike.

Interestingly, the advocatus diaboli was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983, leading to a 10-fold increase in canonization. How has an effective devil’s advocate kept the quality of your decisions high?

Further Reading

How to Foster More Open and Honest Debate

How to get a Juicy Conversation

3 Big Mistakes you make when Trying to Influence

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