By Lindsay Bell
Why are people afraid of being challenged? I’m not talking about the “throw down the gauntlet”, back alley type of challenge, which of course would be unsettling.
I’m talking about healthy debate – defending your ideas, and being asked to think otherwise about a certain subject or path of action. Sure, I’m making a sweeping generalization, as there are loads of people who rise to a spirited exchange of ideas, but in my experience, there seem to be many these days who view it as a negative.
DEVIL’S ADVOCATE OR GUARDIAN ANGEL?
Being a proud devil’s advocate myself, when I stumbled upon an old post by Liz recently, where she dissects devil’s advocates and guardian angels in the workplace, it caught my eye.
Here’s what she had to say about them both:
The position of devil’s advocate is inherently negative. The role is to find holes in the proposed idea. Arguing for the sake of arguing easily can degrade into arguing for inconsequential details or arguing to show how clever the person presenting the argument can be.
The position of guardian angel is inherently positive. The role is to find and fill holes in the proposed idea. Arguing for the possibility of what might work, while checking for risk, leads to dialogue that builds and moulds ideas into useful realities.Â
FACING THE CHALLENGE
Religious imagery aside, I respectfully disagree.
If the devil’s advocateÂ isÂ looking for holes, it’s to stick a big ol’ red flag beside them so you don’t fall in! They are brainstorming, and looking to better an idea or proposed path. They are thinking of the company’s bottom line, and are trying to avoid the cost of cleaning up after something has gone wrong.
WhenÂ I’m playing devil’s advocate, I always let people know: “Just playing devil’s advocate here…”Â – and the reason I do is to NOT insult whoever’s idea it is that I’m challenging. It’s my way of saying “Hey, I’m not asking this to be a jerk, I respect you, but let’s look at it from the other side. I don’t find it ‘inherently negative’. And I certainly don’t “argue for the sake of arguing”.
Granted, my career for the most part has been in journalism/television production. Trust me. You don’t even know what being challenged means until you’ve had your story/idea/interview flayed from top to bottom by a TV executive! But I look back on those formative years with appreciation.
Being challenged like that – daily – teaches you to think differently, it makes you always question “what else”Â or “what if”, and it forces you to always look at what you’re producing through the eyes of your audience – your community.
An employee fearful of speaking up or proffering an alternative thought is not a productive employee.
Fear creates a culture of complacency within an organization and its teams, and inevitably leads to miscommunication and needless extra work being done.
And yes, both sides of the spectrum need to take responsibility for opening the lines of communication.
Employees need to buck up, get a backbone, and not fear that their manager will think poorly of them if they bring up something that she/he doesn’t agree with. They also need to be prepared to argue their points, thoughts and ideas.
Management needs to ensure there are safe spaces where anyone can raise issues without consequences.
Let’s stop seeing devil’s advocates – who actually have the confidence, candor, and courage to speak up and challenge – as somehow negative.
They might be a little feistier and more fiery than your other employees, but if given the option, I would choose devil’s advocate over guardian angel any day.
And I sure as heck would want one on my team.
What do you think? Do you see the value in healthy debate and a good challenge, or do you immediately feel it’s a negative? Would you choose a Devil’s Advocate or a Guardian Angel? Would love to hear your comments!Â