Don’t Fear the Devil’s Advocate!

Avoid the pitfalls of Groupthink by adding a "naysayer" to your team.

As humans, we face the pressure to conform everyday, both in and out of the workplace. While on the surface this may sound okay, the urge to "fall in line" can lead to more damage than good. Total conformity amongst your staff could stifle initiative, lead to a false sense of security, or even breed silent resentment.

Have you heard of the Abilene Paradox? It's the downside of "rule by committee". Simply put, it's the assertion that groups have a strong tendency to adopt a collective decision, even when individual members of that group mentally disagree with the decision. It's all about the fear of making waves, and it can hurt your plans. Members of the group ignore blatant errors or alternate courses of action altogether because they sense it would upset harmony, or even get them ostracized. It's bad when it happens, because it could cause your plan to fail, and failure in the business world often is accompanied by a loss of initiative and money.

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Employing a "devil's advocate" is one way to fight the Abilene Paradox. If you're lucky enough, one is already on your team. If not, you may have to designate one. Whether or not you employ their talents, or coach them through the process of making a counterargument is totally up to you as a leader.

If you're afraid your devil's advocate might go too far and bring the entire planning process to a halt through their dissent, try reining them in a little. Lay down a simple ground rule. Everyone, including the naysayer, pursues their plan fully, leaving you to make the final decision. Afterward, everyone falls in line and executes the approved course of action. By doing so you've encouraged your team to put forth their best efforts into the project, while assuming the final responsibility for implementation squarely on your own shoulders.

About the author: Cuculuain splits his online time between writing reviews for and his blogs Noncustodial Dad, and Amateur Beermaker.

He's also recently launched his own website for Polymaths at Polymath Online.