Has this ever happened to you? A meeting is going along swimmingly. Decisions are being made. Paths forward seem clearly defined. Action items are doled out to key players around the table. And then, a voice pipes up: “I’ll play devil’s advocate and….”
Cue the sound of wheels screeching to a halt, or perhaps the collective, weary exhale of the group.
The term devil’s advocate is defined as a role meant to encourage discussion of an issue from all sides by taking an unpopular approach. However, I fear it’s become something different. Many have come to understand that when we say “play devil’s advocate,” it’s a passive-aggressive way of bringing a point up without it looking like it’s our own. Same goes for those who blanket their opinions with, “Others are saying this about that….”
Maybe this version of the devil joins the folks who state, “I don’t have time…” and “We’ve always done it that way” as another member of your staff’s “how not to get things done” team. The “No Timers” and “Always Done Its” link with the zero-sum thinkers and devil’s advocates. All of them seem to be in love with the programs in place and averse to the transitory state that comes with change.
The new year always brings fresh stories and online guides to healthy resolutions and positive thinking. Maybe a purposeful approach for 2016 would be to banish the devil’s advocate from meetings and our own mind-set.
Just say nay
At a recent presentation, an audience member prefaced his question with, “Let me play devil’s advocate” and went on to detail that his library had to be financially cautious because of a conservative board and community. His library couldn’t do the things I was talking about (chaotic learning spaces, community collaboration opportunities, etc.) without justifying the expenditures. It all seemed so frivolous. Hmmm, perhaps it wasn’t the board or the community but said advocate’s own perceptions speaking. I countered that governing boards should look to administrators for reflective thought about these opportunities and, of course, careful evaluation of the community served.
Do you tiptoe around the devil’s advocate in your institution? It might be hard to avoid the person when they are a leader. It’s hard to cultivate new ideas when the director or another person with power is a naysayer.
I asked Kathryn Deiss, retired content strategist at the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) and consultant for planning groups, about it. She reminded me that Tom Kelley of IDEO writes in one of his books that when people say “let me play devil’s advocate,” it squashes any small bud of an idea. “I agree,” she said. “I would like us to play ‘angel’s advocates.’ ” The importance of diverse opinion for good decisions should be valued, and people must make room for diverse opinions without shutting down ideas differing from their own. Directors, managers, and leaders should be well versed in encouraging a diversity of thought and an open forum for those thoughts to flow, not just in meetings but throughout our institutions. I find it interesting that this line of thinking leads back to the importance of transparency and honest, authentic listening to the folks who keep our libraries going.
A positive spin
Is it a form of devil’s advocacy to dismiss devil’s advocacy as a bad thing? Or is there a place for taking the negative approach to further the conversation? My glasses may be slightly rose-tinted, but I’m always one to err on the side of the positive vibe. Let’s give that meeting scenario a spin with some new views that just might exorcise that devil.
Cultivating the skills of critical thinking in a positive way is a good start. It’s better suited for our missions and visions, and it makes for much better meetings. Something we teach our students to do in the information professions course at San José is a SWOT analysis, whereby we can explore “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats” through a lens of possibility and response, not doom and gloom. Isn’t that a better attitude to bring to the table?
Come prepared, too—with research, perceptions from others in the field who write about the issue, and have an open mind. A high degree of self-awareness is required for successful, critical paths to issues. Understanding your own weaknesses and personal biases should be part of the process. Sometimes a negative mind-set is so ingrained, we are unaware of it. Ask a trusted coworker or friend if you have played the devil’s role a bit too often. It’s also solid practice to admit, “I was wrong” or “I don’t know.”
Give this a try at your next planning meeting. Got a new service coming up? Ask each team member to bring a few brainstormed problems that could occur and proposed solutions to remedy them. Too often we focus more on the problems and potential for disaster and less on the solutions that should follow.