Rather than embracing a range of perspectives from sources outside of the business, a leader who plays the devil’s advocate takes the pessimistic approach, highlighting the faults and opposing new ideas. Playing devil’s advocate for a leader is a far easier option than looking into possibilities.
By shutting down any new ideas, leaders reduce their level of risk and reduce the unknowns in a situation, thereby reducing the need to trust people. Often, the ‘once bitten, twice shy approach’ rears its head as well—where a leader may have trusted someone in the past, even years earlier, and this has back-fired with them still feeling the pain from that incident.
Leaders that play the devil’s advocate typically prepare for the worst before it’s even happened. They’ll look for problems, such as suggesting that the cost will far outweigh the benefits, and this will demotivate others to try new ideas or to embrace innovation. They think they are saving the day with their perspective, when in fact they are encouraging a biased view.
So, why do leaders have this restricted view of bringing in an outside perspective?
Bad Consultation Experiences
Having dealt with consulting firms in the past, leaders feel they have not received value for their time or money. Prior experiences have left a bad taste in the leader’s mouth. Consulting firms have come in and identified problems, but they have not shown leaders how they can resolve them.
So, leaders feel that these consulting firms have only carried out half of their job. And in some cases, have made the problem worse.
Having a high level of distrust and failing to learn from feedback given from outsiders means that many leaders fail to see the value of outside help. Thus, when leaders engage outside help, they cannot action the advice or connect the dots effectively. This situation occurs because leaders have a high level of distrust, and this prevents them from taking constructive feedback on board—two factors that feature in the Johari Window, a business model that is used to enhance an individual’s perception.1
The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) increased the focus on risk, with many people within organisations facing the very real threat of losing their jobs, and organisations having to scale down their operations to survive. This financial crisis also made leaders and organisations more resistant to change as they used the GFC to compound their negative views when playing devil’s advocate.2
Also, the GFC was systemic, which resulted in the need for the regulatory systems to change. This approach saw organisations having to review their practices and introduce tighter criteria. Consequently, reducing the level of risk and raising greater awareness of the risk that was present attracted a lot of focus, often preventing conversations about possibilities and the wider perspective so critical for business success.
As a leader, when you have a limited perspective, you only see what’s in front of you. Therefore, it’s difficult for you to understand new ways to solve a problem because you have a one-dimensional view—a solo perspective, your perspective.
But, if you had another point of view, another perspective because you asked someone else, then you would get a fresh interpretation of the problem.
Magician Vinh Giang proves this point by recording a magic trick that gives his viewers a limited or solo perspective. He then replays the recording of this trick to the live audience as he explains that, if he had done this trick ‘live’ on stage, then the audience would have had more than 2000 different perspectives from around the room. These perspectives would have enabled the audience to solve the trick, or as Vinh Giang calls it, the problem.3
Showing another recording of the same trick, from a different camera angle or perspective, Vinh Giang allows the audience to see that there are many more people in the room than first thought. The audience can also see other changes that they didn’t notice in the first video because their attention focused solely on the trick, rather than what was happening in the background.
By exposing limited perspective for what it really is, Vinh Giang opens the audience’s eyes to possibilities and shows them that problems which appear large often are very simple. This philosophy brings about an open-minded approach to problem solving and highlights that perspectives can change the way we solve problems.
1Communication Theory. The Johari Window Model. Coomunicationtheory.org 2018.
2Juneja, Prachi. Global Financial Crisis and Organizational Change. Managementstudyguide.com 2015.
3Giang, Vinh. Perspective. Youtube.com 2015.