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Perspective

Even the Devil’s Advocate Needs an Ally

Anthony O'Reilly | State Street Corporation

July 13,2017

Arguing for the sake of arguing won’t get you anywhere. But having someone step up and question the consensus of a group can actually save your project in the long run.

Do you remember your parents asking, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” Turns out, we would.

Though we may strive to express our individuality, psychologically we prefer to conform. It happens in politics, economics and even sports (ever hear of a fair-weather fan?).The power of the group think is strong indeed. It’s like a snowball that turns into an avalanche – the more people are onboard with a specific idea, the harder it is for others to not get swept up in it.

It’s no secret that the financial services industry is heavily regulated and mistakes are penalized in very big, very public ways. If we, as financial service providers, aren’t careful, such an environment sends a strong message to our employees that the safest way to operate is to operate the same way and buy into the group think. But doing so is the opposite of the innovation mindset that we seek. State Street was founded 225 years ago and if we still conducted business like it was 1792 we would not be here! We are living in an era where change is necessary to survival.

A favorite quote of mine comes from Alfred P. Sloan1, legendary CEO of General Motors who helped the company grow and thrive during the 1920’s to 1950’s. As he was posthumously quoted,

Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement…

Better your in-house devil’s advocate poke holes in your plan now.

Sloan is arguing that when everyone agrees to an idea too quickly it means that something is being overlooked. If a mistake/misstep isn’t caught at the beginning, someone else will catch it later. It would be better that your team catches it internally by someone playing the devil’s advocate and breaking free from group think, rather than fail in the public forum.

In my opinion, the devil’s advocate gets a bad rap. They are often seen as the troublemaker, the instigator, the thorn in the side of an otherwise perfect plan. But believe it or not, devil's advocate was formerly an official position within the Catholic Church and a sacred duty. Their job was to argue against the canonization (sainthood) of a candidate in order to uncover any character flaws or misrepresentation of the evidence favoring their canonization.

In my opinion, we need a devil’s advocate at the table to fight back against group think, a dangerous way of solving problems. Unchecked group think can hinder innovation so much that new ideas don’t even get put on the table for consideration. As the Harvard Business Review reported2, "When groups simply get together and start throwing out ideas, they actually come up with fewer ideas overall and fewer novel, actionable ideas than the individuals in that group would have come up with had they worked alone." As soon as one person throws out a solution in a group setting, that idea influences everyone else and people start looking at the problem in a similar way, a process known as convergence or the bandwagon effect. The presence of a devil's advocate ensures that the project doesn’t fall victim to group think and new ideas have the chance to be heard.

However, when there is only one dissenting voice at the table (especially when being the devil's advocate is not an official job title), that person can be seen as confrontational and argumentative. They are more easily dismissed, and are also more likely to fold to pressure from the group if they are fighting alone.

The Asch conformity experiments3, which studied if and how individuals yielded to or defied a majority group, found that the presence of a "true partner" decreases conformity in a group. By themselves, people were more likely to yield over time, suffering from what Asch termed "distortion of perception." The subjects believed that, with the majority against them, they must have interpreted the problem wrong. Others actually conformed to the majority, even when they knew they were right, simply because they didn’t want to seem "out of step" with the rest of the group.

That's why every devil's advocate needs an ally. If there is only one person speaking against the group, they are more likely to conform to the majority opinion and group think will have won the day. Even if there is just one other person besides the devil's advocate pushing back against the majority opinion, the dissenting voices are less likely to yield. And that partner actually needs to be in the room. The Asch study found that once the "true partner" left the subject’s likeliness to conform started trending back up.

Here at State Street we are working to create a culture that encourages openness, transparency and professional challenge. The only way to grow is to ensure group think doesn’t stifle great innovation.

This post was written with Shawna Wright.

1. Burkus, D. (2014, August 07). How Criticism Creates Innovative Teams. Retrieved June 29, 2017, from https://hbr.org/2013/07/how-criticism-creates-innovati

2. Markman, A., & Review, H. B. (2016, February 03). The Problem-Solving Process That Prevents Groupthink. Retrieved June 29, 2017, from https://hbr.org/2015/11/the-problem-solving-process-that-prevents-groupthink

3. Asch conformity experiments. (2017, June 22). Retrieved June 29, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asch_conformity_experiments


Anthony O'Reilly | State Street Corporation

Anthony O’Reilly is the Chief Ethics Officer at State Street.