According to Wikipedia, the role of the advocatus diaboli (devil’s advocate) was established in 1587 as the official lawyer appointed by the Catholic Church to provide evidence against the canonization of a candidate (the appointing of a Saint). The job was to be skeptic, to poke holes, and generally to keep the standards for canonization very high. As is common in the legal profession, the devil’s advocate was expected to argue strongly against canonization regardless of their personal opinion of the merit of the candidate.
Today, it has become common and acceptable to express unpopular opinions by first invoking the role of devil’s advocate. Unfortunately, it’s so common that many people strongly bemoan the devil’s advocate on their team. We are seldom getting the benefit of the devil's advocate on our team effectiveness. I want to provide a few guidelines for making the devil’s advocate role effective on your team.
- Focus on the evidence. The devil’s advocate was not there to speak ill of the candidate being canonized. Instead, they were to focus on the quality and veracity of the evidence of miracles. The devil’s advocate was there to point out alternate, non-divine, explanations for the observed outcomes. To be a good devil’s advocate, question the evidence and offer alternate conclusions based on the same data.
- Don’t hide behind the term. If you actually don’t agree with the evidence being presented, you are not questioning it just to test. If you believe the evidence at hand is faulty or that it is being used to draw erroneous conclusions, just say so. Your credibility will suffer if you can’t confidently bring a dissenting opinion to the table.
- Take the other side sometimes. If you are always the devil’s advocate, just opening your mouth might cause others to get their backs up. You need to leave the role to someone else. If no one is forthcoming, try asking. “I’m getting tired of always being the devil’s advocate, is there someone who would be willing to play that role today?”
- Rejoice if you’re unsuccessful. As a high ranking member of the Catholic Church, the devil’s advocate was ultimately happy if they were unsuccessful in their attempts. More evidence of miracles on earth was considered a good thing. The same should be true for you. If you are unsuccessful at poking holes in the support for a given course of action, embrace it. Otherwise, you’re a naysayer, not a devil’s advocate.
I’m always glad to see someone willing to introduce healthy conflict into a team. Done as it was intended, the devil’s advocate role can reduce groupthink and the risk of everyone thinking alike. Interestingly, the advocatus diaboli was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983, leading to a 10-fold increase in canonization.