May 11, 2010
Early in life I learned that devil's advocates are a dime a dozen.
And it's a job you shouldn't volunteer for either. Sure, without anyone to poke holes in ideas, we could all come down with group think or be bowled over by a persuasive presenter. That's why we step up at the first opportunity with the passive-aggressive disclaimer, "OK, let me play Devil's Advocate for the sake of argument..."
The character emerged during the sixteen century in the Catholic Church to regulate the canonization process. A lawyer was assigned to take the role of skeptic when someone was considered for canon. He would poke holes in the candidate's character, history and worthiness in a attempt to discredit him for the sake of the church. It was an assignment, not a job you cheerfully volunteer for.
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.
Think about a serial devil's advocate's point of view: No ideas, land-of-no, probably a poor self-image that's being bolstered by pessimism. I've never met a person of this type that was creative, innovative, enthusiastic or even inspirational. As Chris Brogran would say, "you don't want to be that guy." <But often, many of your are - at this point it's a knee jerk reaction on your part. If you saw yourself on tape, you'd be shocked!>
So, here's my advice to you: Don't be a Devil's Advocate unless it is absolutely necessary to prevent a mistake. Let the bankers, the CFO, the lawyers and everyone else further down the development process be the hole-punchers - when you hear a fresh idea in conversation, try being a collaborator instead. Help build on the idea, get the premise at the center of the table and imagine how it might all unfold. Authors of The Experience Economy, Joseph Pine & Jim Gilmore call this the "Yes, And" approach to talking about ideas. (Video: Yes, And VS Yes, But).
I hope more of you join this in this approach - the world is full of too many Devil's Advocates and not enough conversational partners and collaborators.
This idea will be part of my next book, Today We Are Rich. Normally, works in progress aren't posted on Sanders Says, but today I think the message is tied to the blog's narrative regarding relationship building and leadership development. Get sneak peeks of the new book at my Facebook public page.
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