How to handle the devil’s advocate

How to handle the devil’s advocate

Challenging assumptions and tackling questions head on can help your case


Joanne Cleaver

Women’s initiatives are lightning rods for people who take a provocative position not to learn more, but to be disruptive

Women’s initiatives are lightning rods for people who take a provocative position not to learn more, but to be disruptive


Devil’s advocates tend to pop up when a project is about to launch. The idea has been validated and vetted, then the devil’s advocate threatens to derail the whole affair with a volley of questions that appear to undermine the core rationale. Champions of the project are often blindsided, fumbling for a defence of what they thought was obvious.

I hear about devil’s advocates all the time in my work leading research projects that help industries to measure how well they advance women, and how they can do better. Women’s initiatives are lightning rods for people who take a provocative position not to learn more, but to be disruptive.

While devil’s advocates can be a force for good – by challenging assumptions and helping to sharpen thinking – it’s important to know how to deal with them. The goal should be to address legitimate concerns while foiling spurious objections. Here are six tactics that work for me and my clients in our work to retain and develop women leaders:

– Be ready with a powerhouse statistic that crystallises the case. That’s how Darin Goehner, a partner with Seattle accounting firm Moss Adams, responds when men ask, “Hey, when do we get our initiative?” His response: “Look at the numbers. When women are 51 per cent of partners, that’s when men get their initiative.”

– Show how the topic is really a business issue. Risa Lavine, chief of staff for New York-based accounting firm CohnReznick, is sometimes asked if investing in a women’s initiative will deliver measurable results. She turns it around by saying: “This is a business problem. So let’s tackle it as a business problem,” applying analysis, research and recommendations. CohnReznick is methodical about tracking the retention and advancement of its women, just as with any other metric.

– Tackle the status quo head-on. It’s tempting for longtime leaders to think that a culture that has worked for them will work just as well for others. Counter this with forecasts that illustrate the consequences of letting the status quo continue uninterrupted. Show alternative scenarios that project the expected effects of the proposed programme.

– Challenge assumptions by redirecting attention to the real issue. Occasionally, a devil’s advocate will make a sweeping statement, such as, “Women don’t really want to make it to the top.” The answer: “We need to ask women what they want and find out what it will take to help them achieve their goals.”

– Show how everyone wins. Some people assume that supplementary programmes for women give them “an unfair advantage”. Providing extra resources to offset cultural barriers doesn’t take anything away from men. In fact, the whole organisation gains when women become better at selling, managing, innovating and leading.

– Focus on shared goals, not winning this argument. Some people just can’t help it. “Let me play devil’s advocate . . .” they’ll say. When someone opens with this frank admission, it’s reasonable to ask why they think that’s constructive. – (Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016) Joanne Cleaver is president of Wilson-Taylor Associates


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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