Manage Challenging Behaviours: Part 1 The Devil’s Advocate

Your team is diverse – I think you get that. The latest issue of HBR promised to share the new science of teamwork – and when I read it, it didn’t. The article was about four (yes, newish) styles to sort and categorize the people you lead. As a Coach, I’ve used many such instruments over the years – Myers Briggs Type Indicator (TM), DISC(TM) – and lesser known thinking styles, learning styles etc.

I find the value of any personal assessment tool are these (in this order):

  • self-awareness,
  • a common language to talk about behaviours,
  • which might give people a non-threatening way to self-disclose
  • and a reminder that we are all different, and all human.

Leaders are attracted to formulas because they codify the confusing and inexact science of organization behaviour. They promise to make it easier to manage diverse groups toward results. Individual personality tests seem to give people empowerment and accountability.

These tools can harm a team too. They can be used to label and limit potential. Leaders who rely on styles might stop making the effort to really get to know people. We can forget that each day’s experience is a chance to learn and grow. Sorting people can entrench behaviours in a “well that’s just me” kind of way. They can stymie the group’s movement to a true high performance team.

Instead, Leaders should pay attention to workplace behaviours that get in the way of productive and positive results.

For the next few weeks, let’s examine a few of the common challenging behaviours that show up in teams:  Devil’s Advocate, Non-Contributing and Teachers’ Pet.

Devil’s Advocate (DA) is a term applied to someone who will be a lone voice of dissent in a team. Edward de Bono famously called this “Black Hat Thinking”. Teams need to debate to find the best solutions, and the Devil’s Advocate will often stop a dangerous rush to a bad solution. That’s a good thing.

But here’s the rub:  Many dissenters dish up their opinion in a cynical, negative and even sarcastic way. Too often the DA on the team prides themselves on being the stubborn hold-out, and the group dynamics can reward that position. What was a gift at first, becomes, over time, behaviour that exhausts the team looking for workable solutions. Finally, the DA becomes ignored or excluded from conversations to save time.

Leaders should coach the DA to keep contributing from their unique vantage-point, and to do so while respecting others’ views.

Ensure that you don’t scold someone for disagreeing or challenging your viewpoints in a group, and do not allow rudeness and uncivil attacks.

If they need to be better communicators, coach them off-line on how to present their misgivings seriously and in a way that others can hear.

Often, passionate disagreement creates an intimidating style. Teach the difference between assertive and aggressive tone and body language.

Give specific examples of where you have valued their criticisms and input.

Most importantly, explain that being part of a team means that solutions will be a result of input from many perspectives. Sometimes they will like the end result, and sometimes they will need to bow to the group’s wisdom.

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