Moving Beyond the Devil’s Advocate

Combating groupthink with psychological safety
March 28, 2024
David Kautzman

Regardless of your personal leadership and decision-making style, it is almost inevitable that you and your team will occasionally need to work together and make decisions as a group. When these opportunities present themselves, it’s important to remember that the quality of these decisions depends on group dynamics as much as they do on the characteristics of individual team members. One particularly damaging group dynamic we must guard against is groupthink.

Groupthink, first labeled by psychologist Irving Janis in 1971, becomes a problem when your team becomes more concerned with agreeing with their bosses and peers than with generating a high-quality decision. Once your team has entered this phase, they can no longer effectively scrutinize the ideas presented by you, their colleagues, or themselves. Creativity takes a backseat to conformity, and your organization suffers.

It’s only natural, however, that people want to fit in with others in their social circle. We are social beings, after all. So how do we combat this natural but negative phenomenon? Some have suggested the use of the devil’s advocate, where a person, or several people, within the decision-making group is assigned the role of criticizing the group’s plan or offering alternative solutions. This technique can have its limitations, though. In a 2020 study, Muqtafi Akhmad, Shuang Chang and Hiroshi Deguchi tested these limitations based on decision-making simulations, and concluded that, yes, the devil’s advocate technique can be useful when there are high levels of groupthink and closed-mindedness. However, the authors also concluded that decision-making is even better when the decision makers avoid groupthink in the first place. In other words, the devil’s advocate technique is less a full cure than a better-than-nothing treatment.

So, what can we do as leaders to get the best decisions from our teams? It starts by creating an environment where group members know how to express dissent and new ideas constructively and have the psychological safety to feel comfortable doing so. Once this level of psychological safety is achieved, once people are no longer concerned with conformity because they already feel secure with their place in the organization, then they are then freed up to help the team be the best that it can be.

TL;DR: Groupthink can be detrimental to a decision-making body. Techniques like the devil’s advocate can mitigate its harm, but it’s better to create a psychologically safe environment where groupthink seldom occurs and is easily rooted out before it fully becomes established.

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