Teams need a devil’s advocate. Here’s how to play the role productively

good team has a diverse set of members who have different perspectives, experiences, points of view, and styles. This prevents blind spots and groupthink that can lead the team down dangerous paths and to poor performance. But one of the key roles that teams often get wrong is that of the devil’s advocate.

This is the person on the team who takes an opposing point of view and brings up contrary evidence and perspective. It’s a key role to help make sure the team isn’t missing a critical piece of information or failing to consider other options. However, many teams get the role wrong. Instead of inhabiting a key role necessary to improve decisions and results, a bad devil’s advocate will just be argumentative and create friction on the team.

Here are the right ways to make sure your team is taking everything into consideration.

Attack the ideas, not the people: The goal of the devil’s advocate is not to question the person’s character or credibility. Instead, focus on the idea being presented and stick to the merits and soundness of the arguments being made. Question the evidence and the conclusions by providing additional/alternative data, logic, or experiences. Do so respectfully and avoid making your comments personal or demeaning.

Provide solid logic and rationale: A good devil’s advocate will present new and valid data and sound thinking. Focus on providing different examples and data sets that can be used to draw different insights and conclusions. Your goal is to get the team to consider other options and positions, not to personally discredit someone else on the team.

Offer new alternatives: One of the best things you can do as the devil’s advocate is to offer new and alternative options. Instead of just undermining and undercutting another idea, focus on providing a different path. Even if the suggestion isn’t totally viable or thought out, it can promote discussion and debate that can lead to other ideas and directions.

Serve the team, not your personal agenda: When an individual uses the devil’s advocate role to advance a personal agenda or grind an ax they have with another team member, it is neither appropriate nor helpful.  Instead, focus on serving the team’s agenda to efficiently reach a better outcome.

Know when enough is enough: The point of the devil’s advocate is to advance the team’s thinking and the quality of their decision making, not to grind discussion to a halt and stymie the team’s progress. When you feel like you’ve exhausted the value of a line of reasoning, it’s time to step out of the role and move on.

Switch it up: The devil’s advocate role is key on any team and it’s important that every team has one. However, it’s best not to let it be the same person every time. If one person is always the naysayer, it will create a rut for everyone. Instead, switch it up and make sure everyone develops the skill.

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