Healthy criticism is good. It allows an idea to be teased out to it’s best version. One of the most valuable voices in any organization – or group of people, for that matter – is the voice of dissent or speculation. It is the voice that asks the difficult questions. It is the voice that brings up “What if…?”. It pushes an idea to be better. It is the yin to the yang and a necessary element in discussions. Playing devil’s advocate is a good thing. Just like all good things, it must be done in balance; and this is where things have gone off the rails a bit.

yinyangI don’t know what it is about finding the value in something and then taking it to the nth degree as a means to celebrate its value and rightness. This extremist fervor can be found in so many areas of life and business. It’s as if that newly discovered whatever has become messianic in nature and so it is grossly overplayed and the original intent of it gets lost in the clamor. Playing devil’s advocate is no exception.

The most unfortunate tendency of pushing something beyond its rational limits, is that unsubstantiated dichotomies are formed. “If we do X, the Y will fall apart (simply because X has to be the opposite of Y).” How many times have you heard the dissenting voice frame their dissent in this manner? In reality, the true message is “Take X into consideration when planning Y, so there is balance and wisdom in how it is accomplished.”

I’m not sure how we got to this point, but it is a dangerous practice that can wreak havoc on organizational culture. Often times, the devil’s advocate role devolves into a passive aggressive facade for petty politics. The emotion created from a company culture like this is one of distrust, cynicism and vengefulness. Not the most helpful emotions for top performance.

Here are a few tips for keeping the devil’s advocate role alive, but within a healthy balance in your organization.

  • Look for imbalance – Look for the construction of those false dichotomies. They often times begin with phrases such as, “Yeah but if we do that, then…”. Instead of publicly calling someone out, reframe what they said in a way that educates, restores balance to the dissenting thought and honors the person who is willing to explore options. This will play an integral role in how dissent is managed within your organization.
  • Don’t punish – The knee-jerk reaction to seeing something destructive is to punish it into non-existence. The assumption with this is that the person’s motivation is malevolent. Perhaps it has become a learned behavior from poor leadership in the past. Now is your opportunity to build your organization through building the people in it. This is a coaching moment, so take advantage of it.
  • Celebrate success – There will be someone who does it right. They point out challenges without forcing some unnecessary sense of opposition. Find an authentic way to show appreciation for that. Recognition is a powerful motivator and when it is focused in a healthy way, it can be used to build and maintain a quality culture.
  • Be the example – Make sure that you’re not the biggest culprit of improperly playing devil’s advocate. We often times become a product of our environment, so you may have these tendencies as well. As a leader, you have to sort this out in your own behavior before you can call out others. A great start could be to catch yourself in the act and correct yourself in front of others. That is a very powerful message of self-ownership and an important value for a human-centric, performance-oriented culture.

What are some other tips you could offer leaders to keep this in balance?