The Devil's Advocate: the tool to end group-think once and for all

June 2018
Group-think has always been a feature of boards and inspiration for a solution to it lies in the Catholic Church.

Advocatus Diaboli is Latin for ‘Devil’s Advocate’. It was the name of an official position in the Catholic Church from the 16th century until 1983. The position was part of the canonisation1 process. The proponent of a candidate was called God’s Advocate and, to mitigate group-think, the Devil’s Advocate was tasked with arguing against the canonisation of the proposed candidate.

The same group-think that needed mitigation in the 16th century is still present and highly relevant for today’s decision makers. Imagine you are a trustee of a pension scheme and the management team has been working on a new investment strategy for the last six months. The management team has been in frequent contact with the scheme’s chair to anchor their strategy. 

When reading the material in advance of the board meeting, it becomes clear that it is expected that the board of trustees will approve the new investment strategy. The strategy is clearly described and documented, but your instinct tells you that some of the fundamental assumptions underpinning the strategy are not realistic. What will you do in the meeting? Would you:

  1. Ignore your gut feeling and trust the collective wisdom of your fellow trustees?
  2. Carefully articulate your concerns, but will not push it as you are a team player?
  3. Vote against and demand that your disagreement is stated in the minutes?

When push comes to shove, most of us would probably choose options 1 or 2. In the rare case that you persist and stand your ground, you know that your fellow trustees would be annoyed at you and probably would question your loyalty to the team. 

Surely something is seriously wrong with this situation? It must be better for the group of trustees to discover the short-comings of an investment strategy in a board meeting that takes place behind closed doors, instead of moving ahead and facing a potential failure in the public domain. Why do we get annoyed at individuals who challenge the group’s thinking, despite the fact that we know that it is ultimately in their best interests? The short answer is that we are social beings and it is very important to us to belong to a group. We need decision tools that can help us ignore our basic instincts.

The Devil’s Advocate is a practical tool that helps us foster healthy debate and make better decisions as a group. All we need to do is appoint one trustee to act as Devil’s Advocate. This should be done well in advance of the meeting so that he or she can actively search for any potential weaknesses of a proposal. By assigning this task to someone it becomes a role to play, which increases the mental distance between arguments and individuals.

Like all tools, the Devil’s Advocate needs a warning label. When using it we need to make sure that we are vetting the strategy and not getting personal. If the tool is abused it could have the opposite effect and actively shut down constructive discussions. The chairperson has an important role to play in managing the process.

The Devil’s Advocate is a tried-and-tested tool that has been used for centuries to deal with group-think. By rotating the role between trustees everybody will experience it. It might feel awkward in the beginning, but soon it will become routine and the board of trustees will, as a group, make better and more informed decisions. 

So, what’s stopping you from trying out the Devil’s Advocate tool in your next board meeting?

A formal declaration that a deceased person is a saint