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Speak Up! Dissension Is Key to Successful Teamwork

Business News Daily Editor
Business News Daily Editor

Having someone on your team who can subtly express diverging opinions can pay big dividends.

  • Be courteous when using the devil's advocacy decision-making process. Don't make it personal.
  • Breaking up into groups makes the devil's advocacy role more effective and less personal.
  • It's important to manage conflict effectively when playing devil's advocate. 

Though too much conflict on a team can hurt performance, certain types of opposing views can be beneficial, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Teams that have one member who can subtly present an opposing view perform better than teams made of members who all agree, the research found.

What is a devil's advocate? 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines "devil's advocate" as "someone who pretends, in an argument or discussion, to be against an idea or plan that a lot of people support, in order to make people discuss and consider it in more detail."

"A devil's advocate in a team can help team members to more deeply process information," Lindred Greer, one of the study's authors and a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, told Business News Daily. "When someone presents an alternative perspective, it encourages members to consider other angles of a problem, to think more deeply about their own views and perhaps to be stimulated to explore solutions they would not have considered before."

In the end, the devil's advocate helps teams improve the depth and quality of their communication processes and the quality of their eventual performance outcomes, Greer said. The key is in how the opposing opinion is presented and perceived by the other team members. If the devil's advocate can present his or her rival thoughts in a carefully constructed way, the diverging opinion isn't seen as a conflict, Greer said.

Tips on how to be a good devil's advocate

The Harvard Graduate School of Education provides great insight into how to play devil's advocate effectively while avoiding conflict. Here are some ways to soften the message without blunting it:

  • Be courageous. By presenting your own concerns, you may encourage others to do the same. Starting a sentence with "One thing I don't feel great about is" or "I don't know if I agree with this" is a way to signal your dissent and generate conversation rather than conflict.

  • Challenge ideas, not other participants. There are ways to disagree with ideas without calling out the person who brought them up. Instead of leading with "I don't think Frank's idea will work," try something like this: "Based on how the campaign went the last time we tried that, I am not sure that's the solution we should go with this year."

  • Don't hurt feelings. When someone is upset, comfort them during a break. Apologizing or asking how they are during the meeting can make them feel worse. In this case, the upset person may close down to new ideas entirely.

  • Maintain focus on the group. Doing so will help save the facilitator when they are missing important cues. For example, instead of saying, "Sandy, this meeting is out of control," try saying, "I think we are missing an important point. Harry, can you repeat that?" 

Greer's research underscores the importance of delivering opposing opinions delicately. 

In previous research, Greer discovered that more than half of the time, when workers had someone disagree with them on a task, they were likely to take it personally and become emotional. [Read related article: Teams Work Better When Employees Care About Each Other]

"Once conflicts become personal and emotional, people become irrational, are distracted and can't process information fully," Greer said. "Therefore, it's critical for a devil's advocate to present a divergent opinion in a way that people will not take personally or emotionally – that they will hear it simply as a different piece of information or as a nonthreatening alternative way to view solutions to their task."

When an opposing opinion is seen as confrontational, teams perform worse, Greer noted.

"If an opposing opinion comes across as a direct challenge, especially a personal challenge, to the other members, this can easily turn into a personal conflict in the team that will distract and derail the team from task accomplishment," she said.

The research was based on two studies. In the first, 571 postgraduate students at a business school in India were assigned to 120 teams in order to participate in a decision-making game. When the game was complete, the students rated the conflict on their teams. For the second part of the study, the researchers surveyed 320 members of 41 teams at a financial corporation in the Netherlands.

The two studies revealed that teams that had one member who carefully presented an opposing opinion – in other words, a devil's advocate – outperformed teams in which all of the members agreed and teams in which multiple members disagreed.

The researchers said the study showed that, when business leaders assemble work teams, they should make sure at least one member can thoughtfully present an opposing view.

"Encourage devil's advocacy, but make sure the person playing that role is emotionally intelligent and well trained in communication and conflict management," Greer said. "Having someone that views the world in a different way – and can express these views in a constructive manner – can help spark your team to a higher level of performance than they could have obtained otherwise."

What is devil's advocacy decision-making?

Ryan T. Hartwig outlined the following steps for using devil's advocacy in decision-making.

  1. Identify the problem.

  2. Divide the group into subgroups. One subgroup is the devil's advocate (DA subgroup), and the subgroup will come up with an affirmative recommendation (AR subgroup).

  3. The AR group uses the existing data to develop recommendations. The DA group bases its recommendations on facts that might be missing.

  4. The AR group presents their ideas, and the devil's advocate group critiques the recommendations based on false assumptions, missing facts and questions regarding the data.

  5. The groups can break out as many times as needed to come up with solid recommendations that take all factors into consideration.

  6. Once the groups agree on the best recommendations, enact those ideas.

The importance of conflict management

The researchers also encouraged employers to consider providing employees with conflict management skills training.

"The ability to express differences of an opinion in a careful manner can be the make-or-break success factor that determines the ability of your team to succeed and flourish," Greer said.

The study was co-authored by Ruchi Sinha, of the University of South Australia; Niranjan Janardhanan, of the University of Texas; Donald Conlon, of Michigan State University; and Jeff Edwards, of the University of North Carolina.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
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