We’ve all been there. The meeting has dragged on and on. It looks like the team has finally arrived at an action plan. Things are winding down, tasks are being assigned, and you are ready to pack up and get back to your real work. At that very moment, someone says, “Let me play devil’s advocate” and launches into a rehash of the previous discussion. Colleagues groan inwardly, everyone hoping the boss will dismiss this unnecessary showmanship.
The concept of “devil’s advocate” has its roots in the Roman Catholic Church. It was the title of the person appointed to challenge a proposed canonization or the verification of a miracle. Today, the term is defined as a person who argues a position, not because they are committed to their argument, but because they wish to extend the debate or continue the discussion.
Why do some employees feel the need to do this? If they have an opinion, or concern, why wasn’t it offered during the general discussion? Instead they sit there like the Sphinx, waiting to undo hours of debate and planning just as it is coming to a conclusion. Sometimes they even withhold a critical piece of information to use as leverage when they finally claim the floor.
Most workplaces spend a great deal of time in lengthy (and often unnecessary) meetings. In addition, not all managers are adept at running efficient meetings or making quick and firm decisions. Other workplaces have a highly competitive environment where dissent and conflict are tolerated, perhaps even encouraged. These types of workplaces are prone to devil advocacy.
So, how can this behavior be avoided. First of all, promise yourself that never, under any circumstance, will you personally use such a lame ploy. If you are the boss, refuse to tolerate this maneuver for getting attention and trying to show up others. If you are the team leader or group facilitator, when you go over the ground rules for the meeting, include “no playing devil’s advocate” as one of the firm rules. And, if you have a coworker who has a penchant for grandstanding as a devil’s advocate, send him or her a copy of this blog.
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