A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
November 27th, 2013 by William

The Devil’s Advocate

Mike Royko (1932 – 1997), a renowned Chicago newspaper columnist and winner of the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, once said: “Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.”

Last week my post dealt with cynicism and the old cliché about the glass being half empty or half full. The fact is that in real life circumstances the glass is both half-full AND half-empty. And this is the focus of this post…it’s better to be a realist than a blind optimist. That said, I would agree that it’s definitely beneficial to have a generally positive outlook about work and life in general, however there’s a big difference between unrealistic blind optimism and recognizing the realism in every situation.

Optimism and pessimism, like many things in business, are at opposing ends of a continuum, of which the midpoint is realism−either one, in the extreme, are toxic to the workplace.

The fact is that it’s how we deal with the bad things that happen that gets us through life and the work day−not the good things−it’s easy to cope when everything fits into place. A pure optimist believes that success will happen to them−that the universe will reward them for all their positive thinking. In other words they DO NOT have a grasp on the obvious. The pessimist, on the other hand, becomes hog-tied by their negative, often caustic, beliefs that everything is for naught and, no matter what they do, failure is on the horizon.

In my opinion these are the type folks (hopeless optimists and depressed pessimists) that need to be purged from an organization if it’s to be a success in the long run. These are two metrics that really should be on every performance review form.

The fact is no organization ever got into trouble by being realistic about their fortunes, but there are plenty of stories about organizations that have failed because they didn’t face the reality of their situation.

A realist is someone who wants to know the truth of every situation. They want to see a reasonable and logical way to do things. They want realism built into any and all plans that they’re a part of−they recognize the need for giving serious thought to how they will deal with obstacles. They prefer to deal with the facts of a specific situation instead of relying on feel-good rhetoric and pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.

However, the biggest problem in today’s business environment is that most management teams will quickly tell the realist that they are “being negative” when they dare to express their concerns, or reservations, or point out the obstacles that stand in the way of their goals. The fact is most organizations don’t even take the realists seriously. They don’t even listen to them. Here’s a test for your organization: if when you make any negative comment about anything your organization is undertaking, are you labeled a “drama queen?” This is the label given most realists and its proof management isn’t listening.

Which brings me to the point of this post−wouldn’t every organization be better off by nurturing the realists in their midst?

David Butler (1894 – 1979), an American actor, film director, producer, and screenwriter, once said: “Find the crazy people in your organization and listen to them.” This is an accurate quote because most management teams consider the realists to be “crazy.”

The irony is that when planning something that’s really critical for the organization most organization’s I’m familiar with will implement what’s called the “red-team review” approach to vetting their plans. The “red-team” is an organized effort to shoot holes in a plan by identifying the short-comings. These red-teams act as “the devil’s advocate.”

A devil’s advocate is someone who identifies the shortcomings of a plan, or identifies issues and problems that haven’t already been addressed. The devil’s advocate is in essence arguing against a plan, not because they necessarily disagree with the plan, but because facing the potential problems that could arise helps make any plan as bullet-proof as possible. In any important undertaking, it is absolutely worthwhile to have someone put on their devil’s advocate’s hat and ask: “What could go wrong? What are we overlooking or ignoring? What should we consider now that, if we don’t, we’ll regret later?”

It’s always interested me that many organizations will employ the red team devil’s advocate in the process of vetting a plan, yet that same “realistic” position is frowned upon when tackling everyday challenges and problems. Also most “Red Teams” are usually made up of upper management types−the folks who’re not in the trenches. Red teams should include the very people who have to execute a plan−they know the real pitfalls−give them a chance to voice their opinions. Unfortunately most organizations require the people in the trenches preach the party line and salute smartly−they never get to let loose how they really feel about a plan.

David Furth calls the devil’s advocate “The Corporate Fool,” in his book by the same name. Based on how most “realists” are treated in most organizations I agree with him. In his article “The Corporate Fool and the Search for Healthy Organizations,” Firth, an author, and consultant in the areas of organization development, employee engagement and leadership, explains what happens when an organization doesn’t listen to the organizational “Fool.”

Firth tells us, “The Fool knows the truth is a very simple solution to most business problems. But we don’t use it. And then the project collapses and everyone crawls out of the wreckage and says ‘I knew that would happen’.”

As William Arthur Ward (1921–1994), author of Fountains of Faith, and one of America’s most quoted columnists once said: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” Most organizations need just that−people who recognize the sails need adjusting.


One Response to “The Devil’s Advocate”
  1. Anonymous says

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