During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy had to decide how to respond to Russia’s deploying nuclear weapons in Cuba. It was one of the most important decisions in the history of decision making. If he made the wrong choice millions of people, if not all of humanity, could be wiped out.
Not everyone would consider Kennedy up to the task because just one year earlier he had botched a major decision by invading Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. In fact, that decision created the environment from which the missile crisis would develop.
In a later review of the Bay of Pigs situation, Yale psychologist Irving Janis concluded that a major contributor to the poor decision making was “groupthink,” a term he defined as "a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group.” Kennedy wanted to invade Cuba and his team wanted to be in agreement with the most powerful person in the room (as well as the world), so they had an easy consensus with little dissent.
When the Cuban Missile Crisis arose, JFK realized his earlier error and insisted on hearing opposing viewpoints. His solution was to assign the role of “devil’s advocate” to his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. His job was to mount robust arguments against each recommended course of action. In the end, the decision to enforce a blockade rather than a more aggressive tactic proved wise and the crisis was averted.
A one-sided trial?
Imagine you are a juror at a murder trial and you are only presented with one side, say, that of the prosecutor. You don’t even know there is another, conflicting, argument. How likely are you to make a fair and accurate assessment? Not very.
That is often the case in organizational decision making - once one viewpoint is considered and condoned by the leader, other options may not even come to light. The answer seems obvious when you don’t know there is another side, let alone what it is or if it has merit.
The devil’s advocate
Nobody likes the complainer, that “Negative Nelly” who finds fault with everything. But effective decision making needs at least one Nelly to make sure the group is not agreeing just to be agreeable or to suck up to the boss.
Enlisting someone to play the devil’s advocate can help overcome groupthink as well as a number of cognitive biases, including confirmation bias, hindsight bias and anchoring. In their book, Decisive, authors Dan and Chip Heath call this the “consider the opposite” approach and it is an important part of effective decision making.
A key signal that a decision process needs a devil’s advocate is when one or two options are universally and quickly agreed upon as the best solution(s). That should be a big red flag and an indicator to dig deeper.
The devil’s advocate‘s role can be uncomfortable because the person must battle their own instincts to go along with the group and the boss. However, because the role is assigned rather than based on the person’s own beliefs, they are free and encouraged to come up with as many objections as possible.
It can actually be fun to play the role of villain, as many actors will attest.
A natural opposition
Of course, assigning the role of devil’s advocate is not necessary when there are already opponents of the idea or approach. That's a good thing and members of a team who are willing to express viewpoints that disagree with the leader should be commended.
Likewise, the leader needs to create a safe environment for dissent, so the team members will not fear for their jobs or standing if they speak their contrarian minds.
This “consider the opposite” tactic can also be used by individuals, not only in decision making and problem solving but in choosing what ideas to believe or support. Because we are prone to lizard brain preferences for the status quo, negativity, and fear, whenever you are on the cusp of choosing an idea or potential course of action - stop.
Play your own devil’s advocate. Ask yourself what would happen if you did the opposite. Could that other approach be more in line with your values than the direction you are currently leaning? The answer may be “no” but unless you take the time to think about it from both sides, you won’t know.
As Albert Einstein said, ““Genius abhors consensus because when consensus is reached, thinking stops.” So adopt a devil’s advocate approach and keep that thinking going strong.
Think well and be well!
- Steve Haffner, decision performance speaker, author
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