August 14, 2017

Speak of the Devil | Office Hours

Michael StephensHas 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.

This article was published in Library Journal's February 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Assistant Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

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Comments

  1. jane mcsmith says:

    i don’t think that librarians should be advocating for the devil.

  2. anonymous coward says:

    I am amazed at how often our reaction is why we won’t be able to accomplish our goal instead of figuring out what it would take for us to achieve it.

    Stopping ourselves from making things better but trying to plan for every single bridge we might, potentially, maybe come across is not good planning.

  3. “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 without justifying the expenditures. It all seemed so frivolous”.

    Frivolous?? Not to that audience member. This is what so many of us have to live with, depending on our finance structure. Frivolous is brushing aside and assuming it is someone else’s (supposedly mistaken) perception instead of respecting their very real concerns.

    This entire LJ issue is full of “theory vs. reality” situations, actually, starting with the “Letters”.

  4. I completely agree that we should be suspicious of people playing devil’s advocate to say, “we shouldn’t do this because of reason X.”

    However, I think it’s reasonable to ask, “how will we respond to people who might argue we shouldn’t do this because of reason X?” Hopefully we know our communities well enough to be able to anticipate pushback, and I think we should plan ahead for this. We should stay positive as much as possible, but when we experience the inevitable resistance to change, we need to be ready for it.

    • anonymous coward says:

      Sure, but you can’t delay movement until you’ve accounted for every single potential push-back and contingency. That leads to paralysis.

  5. Jane Cowell says:

    I have often used the De Bono’s Six hats of thinking with groups when discussing new ideas and everyone must wear every hat. I think it is also good to get excited about new ideas and also have a section in the planning meeting for the question ‘What do we need to be cautious about’. Gives the devil’s advocates a chance to put their concerns on the table and that these concerns can then be ‘solved’.

  6. William Billions says:

    “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.”

    It can, if you’re the kind of person who isn’t prepared to back up your argument. Devil’s advocate works in the hypothetical to challenge the idea and test its mettle. While I don’t condone using the technique to shut down innovation or ideas, that isn’t the point of the exercise and like any rhetorical tool it will be used or misused. It doesn’t mean that devil’s advocate doesn’t have a use to work out an idea or challenge a brainstorming session or an individual to expand their thinking.

    The inverse is something I would fear worse which would be the Tyranny of Positivity. Where any negative response or dissension is unwelcome and those who disagree with that meeting’s group-think are shut out of future meetings or labeled as a ‘negative person’ and have their ideas dismissed out of hand. These are the tactics by used by groups to silence opposition, not foster positive communication. It’s tone policing at best, speech control at worst. So I would rather advocate for the devil, than nod with the crowd.