As I work with many boards, as a volunteer and as staff, I witness and participate in “devil’s advocacy” but I am unsure that I or others really know what it means by definition and what it means to the board or committee’s forward movement.
It recently came up in a board I am working with and I decided to find out more about playing the “devil’s advocate”. The definition through the Webster’s College Dictionary is this “a person who advocates an opposing view for the sake of argument”.
My interpretation is someone who proposes a different side to the issue then the one being presented to the group in order to provoke more discussion, looking from different angles of the issue.
There are those who can play this role very well. I worked with a gentleman on a board in which I was a staff member. I can honestly say I questioned where he stood on the issues a lot of the time because it seemed he was against everything the organization was trying to accomplish.
He never prefaced his questions or comments with “not to play devil’s advocate, but”. He just asked tough questions about the issue in order for the board members to look at both sides of that issue. I didn’t know that was what he was doing until many years later when I worked with him again AND I had more experience and understanding. My point is he didn’t have to say he was playing devil’s advocate – he just did it.
He didn’t throw anyone under the bus and he didn’t criticize the work of the board or staff, he just asked the tough questions of the issue at hand. He knew how to frame questions that provoked more thought.
It took a long time for me to realize what he was doing, but I can tell you now that I would work with him anytime.
There are also those that want to play this role but it doesn’t always work out as envisioned.
There is a definite finesse in playing devil’s advocate, one that takes skill and tact as well as the ability to think quickly about the questions to ask.
Due to the many different personalities and learning styles that make up a board or committee, the devil’s advocate needs to frame the questions in a way that creates forward movement with the group, not to shut the work down. Looking at all sides of an issue is vital in business and organizational work and the devil’s advocate can create an environment in which that happens.
Page 2 of 2 - It isn’t about a split vote or people leaving the room upset or angry.
It is about creating hard discussions in order to make an informed decision and working through to come to a common understanding about the issue, whether everyone agrees or not.
If you plan on playing the “devil’s advocate”, be intentional and deliberate with the questions you ask. Do your homework about the issue so you can play the role well. It is risky…for you and for the group, but it could be a great asset to the work of the group.
For more information, contact Becky Wolfe, Executive Director Leadership Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.leadershipbutlerinc.org