We've all been in that meeting. Someone comes up with a fresh idea, and almost instantly, another person chimes in with, "Well, just playing Devil's Advocate here, but..." This simple sentence has the power to limit brainstorming, sour the team dynamic, and yes, even hurt feelings. Have you ever been that person? Do you know someone who has? Let's unpack this.

The Historical Underpinnings: It's Not Just a Buzzword

Contrary to what you might think, the phrase "Devil's Advocate" isn't some corporate jargon. It has historical roots tracing back to the Catholic Church. Yes, you read that right. The church used the role of Devil's Advocate as a formal part of the process for declaring someone a saint. This role was appointed—not self-appointed—to provide counterarguments and objections. Fascinating, right?

Four Key Points to Consider

Understanding the original role of the Devil's Advocate offers four essential points:

  1. It was an Appointed Role: Nobody could just wake up and decide they were the Devil's Advocate for the day.
  2. Role at the End of the Process: The Devil's Advocate chimed in at the final stages, not at the outset of an idea.
  3. It was a Difficult Role: Playing this role wasn't popular and required a high level of preparation and diligence.
  4. Well-Researched Arguments: The Devil's Advocate wasn't just opinion-based; their objections had to be rigorously researched.

The Pitfalls in the Modern Workplace

Now, let's be real. Today's "Devil's Advocates" don't usually meet any of these criteria. They chime in when they please, often haven't done the necessary preparation, and can disrupt the creative process. So how do you handle this in your team?

How to Manage the Devil's Advocate

  1. Delay Judgment: The first step is to establish ground rules. When brainstorming, make it a rule to hold all judgments until all ideas have been presented.
  2. Assign the Role: If you think having a Devil's Advocate would be useful, assign the role in advance, letting them prepare and making it an official part of the discussion.
  3. Be Transparent: If someone starts playing Devil's Advocate spontaneously, kindly let them know the impact of their words. Encourage the sharing of perspectives, but at the right time.
  4. Acknowledge and Defer: Thank them for their input and suggest revisiting their points once all ideas have been considered.

So, there you have it. Playing Devil's Advocate isn't inherently bad—it's all about how and when it's done. Remember: Timing is everything, and preparation is key.

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About the Author

Kevin has spent 30 years helping organizations and leaders from over 40 countries become more effective. Inc.com has twice named him in the top 100 Leadership and Management Experts in the World. His books include Remarkable Leadership, From Bud to Boss, The Long-Distance Leader, The Long-Distance Teammate, and The Long-Distance Team.

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