When it comes to ensuring that a group makes the best decision, the conventional wisdom is to have someone play the role of “devil’s advocate.” The devil’s advocate role within the group decision-making process requires a team member to express a contrarian opinion in order to encourage debate and ultimately test the strength of an idea or decision. The devil’s advocate is viewed as one of the potential strategies to overcome  “groupthink.” Groupthink occurs when a group reaches a consensus and embraces an idea without critical thinking or serious debate. Groupthink is common in teams because of the desire of individual team members to “fit in.”

Does Playing Devil’s Advocate Help the Group Decision-Making Process?

As humans, we have an ever-present need to “fit in.” The need for acceptance is a basic human instinct. In order to achieve acceptance, we often present slightly different versions of who we are, depending on the environment. At work, with all of its pressures, unwritten rules, and differing levels of power and influence, we might easily go along. As the saying goes “to get along you have to go along.” Given what is known about human nature, the concept of a devil’s advocate looks like a surefire way to improve our collective thinking. 

The name devil’s advocate actually dates back to the 17th century when the Roman Catholic Church created a role specifically to challenge cases involving the canonization of new saints. The idea is beautiful in its simplicity in that through this process someone deserving of sainthood will clearly emerge. In the case of team dynamics, the intention is that the best idea will be realized.

But is that, in fact, the case? Does playing devil’s advocate really help in the group decision-making process? Simply advocating a different point of view does not guarantee that we will end up with a better path forward. After all, across various cultures and religions, the devil is, well, evil. Is creating a role for dissension and opposition for the sole sake of opposing and challenging the best we can do?  

Wise Leadership: Finding Your Inner Voice

Perhaps the answer lies within each of us. We all have an inner voice – let’s call it a Wise Advocate. Your Wise Advocate is that inner voice that seeks what is best for you and others. Wise leadership requires the use of this inner voice.

It is not just interested in what is good for you, but what is good from you. It is the part of you that is seeking your true self, looking to make decisions on behalf of the long-term best interests of all the systems you care about: your family, your community, your workplace, your enterprise.  

This Wise Advocate is defined as an aspect of your attentive mind, experienced as an inner presence that you can access, to a greater or lesser extent, whenever you are receptive to it.  

This process is enabled by a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity: when you think a certain way, the neurons “wire together,” making it easier to think that way in the future. What if you could rewire your own brain to make it easier to make long-range choices? What if you could develop your skills to embody the wise leadership your team needs? In effect, that’s what self-directed neuroplasticity does. If you continually refocus your attention on long-term goals, it becomes easier and easier to practice that form of leadership. Eventually, it becomes second nature to you. 

In their book The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership, the authors Art Kleiner, Josie Thomson, and Jeffrey Schwartz identify two patterns of mental activity that tend to be invoked in business decisions. One of them is transactional: the Low Ground, as they call it, comes into play when you make deals, solve immediate problems or deal with immediate crises by “getting them off your desk.” 

But if you want to make valuable long-range decisions, you also need time on the High Ground: a pattern of mental activity associated with the “executive center” of your brain (where you govern impulse and emotion and think about complex, multifaceted ideas) as well as the “deliberative self-referencing center,” an area activated by the relatively sophisticated thoughts you have about what other people are thinking and what they are going to do – a type of thinking called mentalizing in neuroscience. 

The High Ground pattern involves regular practice in applied mindfulness and mentalizing. It attunes you to the Wise Advocate inside your mind. This is a familiar but often-ignored inner voice, known to philosophers and writers throughout history. It can provide a loving, nurturing, and forthright perspective: helping you see yourself more dispassionately, as an outsider would, but still caring deeply about your well-being and the well-being of your enterprise and its stakeholders. 

Individually and organizationally the Wise Advocate is available to us. There is really no need to create false advocates, like the Devil, when the real answer lies within. Want to learn more about complex decision-making strategies? Sign up for our webinar, How to Manage the Mind in Difficult Times, for a deeper look at the group decision-making process.