16 Apr 2020 21:49 IST

Every leader needs a Devil’s Advocate

Accepting difficult truths or a contrarian point of view transforms the quality of decision-making

As the corona virus continues to disrupt communities, companies and countries across the world, a daily challenge leaders face is making decisions rapidly, often with limited information and with a limited view around the corner of all possible consequences. Most of these crisis-time decisions cast long shadows, often on people that the leader may never even have considered.

Our Prime Minister may have modified the way the lockdown was rolled out, had he foreseen the horrendous impact it has had on the country’s poor and daily-wagers, especially migrant labour. Donald Trump may inwardly be ruing the fact that he didn’t act earlier, in spite of warnings. Bosses at companies may be regretting letting go of some high-cost employees only to watch a client project fall apart. One of the mechanisms that the Catholic Church used when it had to make a critical decision on recommending someone for sainthood — a process called canonisation — was in the person of the Devil’s advocate.

During this long and detailed process, evidence is collected, witnesses examined, documents perused — all to support the cause of the person’s sainthood. But the Church also appointed a canon lawyer to argue against the canonisation. This role of Promoter of the Faith came to be referred to as the Devil’s advocate — in Latin advocatus diabolic. He opposed the God’s advocate, also called Promoter of the Cause — he poked holes in the evidence, took a sceptical view of every anecdote, argued that miracles attributed to the prospective saint were fraudulent.

As a decision-making mechanism it was brilliant. It didn’t always end with a perfect outcome but it ensured that another point of view was heard, often an opposite point of view, before a decision was made. In a time of crisis, leaders need some form of rapid-fire Devil’s advocate inputs.

We need wise decisions, not an echo chamber

In a crisis situation, the team tends to more quickly follow what the leader thinks and says. The need for speed seems to overwhelm the need for the right and wise decision. Some leaders play up this need “Damn it, just do what you’re told. This is no time for debate.” There are times, when the leader has a powerful personality and a cult-like following, and teams blindly follow his direction even when they have doubts; at such times, the need for a Devil’s Advocate formally playing the role, is even higher.

The Devil’s advocate prevents the room from becoming an echo chamber. The Devil’s advocate challenges the team to look at the situation from another point of view, forces the team to do a quick déjà vu travel – look at past similar situations and how they unfolded, consider changed circumstances, account for forgotten stakeholders, do some time travel ahead to look at the possible consequences of the decision, especially negative ones.

The purpose is not to force the team into an analysis-paralysis or to delay decision-making. The need for speed remains, but the Devil’s advocate does not allow that to become an excuse for poor and incompetent decision making. He forces everyone to see the ‘nightmare’ scenario. He says what others may think but be afraid of saying. His role confers on him the right, the authority and yes, the responsibility to do so. In fact, this is why it is best that a Devil’s advocate process is part of regular ‘critical-decision’ making so that it flows naturally and smoothly even in a crisis.

Who’s the right person for this role?

In leadership teams it will help to look to persons of courage and conviction, those unafraid to speak their mind, unafraid to speak truth to power. The person needs to be someone with a record of impartiality, someone who holds the organisations and the team’s interest above his private agendas. Someone with the credibility of performance, whose words will carry weight. Someone without an unfair stake in the outcome.

Consider former US Vice-President Dick Cheney and the role he played as Advisor to George Bush. As a former CEO of Halliburton, an oil-services company that stood to benefit immensely from the military and construction support it provided in Iraq, every bit of advice he provided could have possibly been coloured by the profits his former employer stood to make. It was in his best interest not only for the war to continue but to actually get worse. Obviously, he would be a terrible choice of Devil’s advocate — at best he would be biased, at worst he would be blatantly corrupt.

Sometimes a leader may not have the benefit of someone on the team with the credibility and competence to play this role. She then has to mentally play that role herself — arguing for a course of action, but then stepping back and arguing for the opposite or a different course of action, looking for blind spots, another angle, a different way of looking at available information, anything that will help her improve the quality and effectiveness of the decision she must finally and often quickly take.

How can the ‘disagree and commit’ concept works

The leader needs to support this role and back the process to the hilt. The leader needs to be mentally prepared to abandon a previous planned course of action and embrace a new one. The leader must be prepared to be disagreed with.

Jeff Bezos, in his 2017 letter to shareholders, used this phrase and example – ‘disagree and commit.’

“I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit, and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” That’s the courage of real leadership. He continues: “Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself “well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way.” (underlining added)

This is what a leader needs through every decision-making process but especially in a crisis. If she is secure in her leadership then she does not feel the need to be always right, or the pressure to come off as the smartest person in the room. She asks for pushback and openly listens to it when it comes. She is ready to hear the Devil’s advocate, so that when she does make her decision, she is more assured that it will play out right rather than wrong.