We All Need A Check on Our Thinking
We’re in a meeting. A problem gets set on the table. We start to brainstorm solutions. Ideas are forming. You find one that seems to have potential. It looks to be simple, timely, and meaningful. Just as you’re sketching it out, someone who’s been listening jumps in before your thought’s even finished to say, “Let me play Devil’s Advocate … ”
Once upon a time — in the 16th Century — the role of Devil’s Advocate was an appointment with a specific purpose to test the argument of elevating a person’s life to sainthood.
Today, we flattened the idea, stretched the usage, and made it all but frivolous. As Tim Sanders so aptly describes …
Today, we’ve taken this to the extreme. When someone at work has a new idea about a product or a process, we take on the role of devil’s advocate before they’ve even expressed half the idea. We treat them like idiots, posing objections to them in a tone of voice that suggests, “have you even considered the obvious?” We do the same thing at home. Our kid has an idea for a business and we go into skeptic mode, shooting down her enthusiasm before the food hits the table. In every situation, we don’t improve the way the ideator thinks. Research suggests that only authentic dissent (You truly think it’s a bad idea) can provoke a better idea. When you argue for the sake of argument, you merely bolster the ideator’s conviction as well as her feelings that she’s all alone on this one.
I’m convinced that the Devil’s Advocate takes more value than he or she adds.
Why a Guardian Angel Adds More Value Than a Devil’s Advocate
When you pose your next idea, would you rather have a Guardian Angel or a Devil’s Advocate?
That might seem a clever turn of a phrase, but it’s more than that. The difference is striking. One works to win an argument. The works to contribute. Take a look at the two.
A Devil’s Advocate …
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.
- Psychologically sits on the opposite side of the table.
- Argues against whatever has been proposed.
- Asks questions to focus on risks and problems.
- Bears no responsibility for finding answers to those questions.
- Has a vested reason to ignore or discount valid counter-arguments.
The Devil’s Advocate breaks ideas. No value is added.
A Guardian Angel …
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 molds ideas into useful realities.
- Psychologically sits on the same side of the table.
- Argues for the goal or outcome the idea proposes to meet.
- Asks questions to focus on meaningful solutions with low risk.
- Bears responsibility for finding answers to those questions as part of the team.
- Has a vested reason to build on the idea or propose a better one.
The Guardian Angel strengthens ideas by adding value to them.
A Devil’s Advocate wants to save the business from harm. He or she deconstructs to identify anything that might go wrong. The quest is to stop a problem before something is lost.
A Guardian Angel wants to meet and exceed the dreams of the business and the customers. He or she deconstructs to find and fix the anything that might go wrong. It’s a quest to invent a new solution so that new ground can be won.
The Guardian Angel adds value. A Devil’s Advocate tries to ensure none is lost.
Which would you rather have on your team?
–ME “Liz” Strauss
Work with Liz on your business!!
What a fun post! Thank you Liz.
Lara Galloway says
The Guardian Angel role you describe also sounds like a “champion” of sorts: playing on the same team, focused on achieving the end result, adding value.
It can be helpful to have a person who is willing to dissent from the rest of the group’s pull. I had a friend in grad school who would sit thoughtfully through one of our three-hour comparative literature seminars, up until the very end, where she’d throw out an idea that went in a completely different direction than anyone else had gone. We learned to expect this of her. We were in an environment where creative, original thoughts were the currency traded.
To follow on our tweets yesterday, I’m starting to look for people who don’t necessarily share my view in order to help me try new things. I have long been surrounded by a very supportive audience who finds most of my ideas to their liking. So I guess I’m looking for that Guardian Angel to help me grow beyond where I currently am. Thanks to your post, I’ll make sure I don’t confuse that with attracting a Devil’s Advocate who isn’t on the same side of the table.
Barbara Palmer says
Wonderful post, Liz. Most of us have played both roles. One of them feels much better than the other!
You made me think how much more fun it is to be on a team where people are working together toward common goals, not competing to be the fastest car on the highway.
Jeannie Walters says
Liz,we need more of this. There is so much negativity and controversy for controversy’s sake. I think the role of Guardian Angel is undervalued, for sure. Thank you for the valuable reminder!
Carol Roth says
I think you need both. It’s great to have someone trying to find the solution, but if there is no solution to be had or if it isn’t a good use of time, there is tremendous value in someone pointing that out. An effective devil’s advocate pushes the team to look at the issues and forces them to take a stand where there is conviction. So, perhaps it isn’t that we don’t need a devil’s advocate, we just need ones that aren’t amateurs….
A Guardian Angel translates the observations of a Devil’s Advocate into something actionable. Complaining and criticizing for the sake of pointing out flaws is empty energy. A Guardian Angel transmutates that energy into something positive. We need both elements at the table.
Hi. Me again. We need both, because the GA has evolved to a place where (s)he understands and recognizes the need of the DA to be heard. That’s all anyone really wants anyway – to be heard. Watching a GA in action gives the DA a template for evolution. Eventually, some of the DAs will become GA.
Okay. Now I think I’m done. 🙂
Liz, When I first saw your post I was reminded of a Seth Godin quote, “stop playing the devil’s advocate, he doesn’t need one”. He goes on to say in Linchpin “the devil’s advocate is actually a card carrying member of the resistance. There are entire corporations filled with people like this, people who work overtime to stamp out any insight or art”.
I have always bristled when one shows up. I know we need holes shot in our ideas but too often they end up killing good ideas.
Love this Liz. I love to say aim high,dream big and only modify down if and when you have to. And surround yourself with yes— guardian angel types — I call them … “permissionaries.” (See book Kiss the Joy as it Flies! Ahem.) Also, I’ve found it useful to develop my own inner devil’s advocate and take the role of critic—for my own work — especially at revision stage. Long after dreamstorming. We all need more cheerleaders than fearleaders. Ideas in infancy are ever fragile.
Annabel Candy, Successful Blogging says
I agree, positivity it the way. Negativity saps energy and with someone like that in your team you spend so much time debating you never get anything done!
Having said that some people’s ideas are bad and they need to be told the truth so they can move onto better ones:) Still, the best way to learn is always by trying for yourself.
I’d prefer to try and fail than not try and wonder because someone told me my idea wouldn’t work….
Linda Jackson says
Okay, to play the devil’s advocate on this question – hopefully in a positive way – what happens when all we have are “yes men” to bounce ideas off of? We may have a great number of learning experiences [for how not to do something], but is that the most effective way to run a business or our life?
I agree that the role of devil’s advocate can be taken to extremes, resulting in negativity; but I also believe that people are often too sensitive to questions.
After all, a question is a way to say, tell me more.
Jen Brentano says
Love this! I hadn’t ever heard of the other side…I love it and think it’s brilliant. It also opens people up to exploring more and when we allow exploration so many more great things can unfold!
Bill Attinger says
This is incredibly articulate, Liz.
Iâve referred to these polar opposite contributions as âconstructive criticismâ versus âdestructive criticismâ.
…very well-written and will be shared through the ActSeed social media streams tomorrow!
Bill Blount says
Love the Gaurdian Angel. A friend of mine had a great way of running his company. His words of wisdom were
“Keep mixing them up until you either get what you need, it smells bad or blows up.” He had a lot of GA’s.