Dealing with your board’s “devil’s advocate”

Most boards have oneā€”the board member who always seems ready to offer a counter-argument, point out possible flaws in any plan, and challenge the group’s decision. Often described by chief executives as “our problem board member,” these “problems” might actually be fulfilling an important role on your board.

In October of 1962, facing what would come to be known as the “Cuban missile crisis,” President Kennedy asked his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to take on the role of devil’s advocate throughout the team’s decision-making process. The President wanted to ensure that they fully explored the options, tested their assumptions, and engaged in a rigorous decision-making process. Academics who study group process will often use this example to show the value in group decision-making of having, or appointing, a devil’s advocate.

There is difference, of course, between appointing a devil’s advocate to participate in discussion of a specific matter and having an unofficial devil’s advocate who simply makes your meetings more difficult. Rather than feeling constructive, their behavior can feel destructive. As chair, it is important to understand how to manage these individuals so as to bring out their best and to neutralize them when necessary.

Devil’s advocates often perceive themselves as experts and enjoy the power they can exert in a meeting. With these individuals, it is important to find a way to acknowledge their expertise and the value of the perspective they provide (without necessarily agreeing). You might say, for example, “That is an important point to make as we consider the options here, and I appreciate your perspective. We do want to understand this fully before we move ahead.” Don’t go on the defensive, but make it clear that you will be looking for a range of perspectives before making a decision. The more fully the devil’s advocate understands the matter at hand and appreciates the thinking that has gone into it, the more likely he or she is to get on board.

Unfortunately, some devil’s advocates aren’t easily steered towards more constructive behavior. It may seem like they are on the opposite side of every decision and in a constant state of opposition to the rest of the board or the chief executive. If this is the case, you may want to make a point of calling or meeting with the devil’s advocate before your board meetings to discuss those items you anticipate might be problematic. You will not only get an opportunity to hear in advance his or her arguments, but you might be able to effectively channel the devil’s advocate’s energy to move an idea forward: “I know that this item is important to both of us, and I would love to get your help in championing this with the rest of the board.” This can be a very effective strategy.

If the negative energy of the devil’s advocate is proving to be debilitating to the board, as board chair you need to play an active role in addressing the behavior. Make an appointment to talk, ideally face-to-face and one-on-one, and explore with him or her what it is that might be driving the behavior you have observed. This can be done gently by probing a bit to see how he or she thinks things are going with the board and the organization. Or you might begin with something like: “I can’t help but notice that you are often in opposition to the direction the board (and/or the chief executive) wants to go in our meetings, and I’m wondering if there is an underlying problem or issue that I should be aware of as board chair?” If you are lucky, you may surface a problem that can be resolved, but you may also find that he or she has issues with you, the chief executive, the board, or the organization’s direction that cannot be easily resolved. In these rare cases, your conversation might then turn to talking about how to help him or her make a graceful exit from the board.

While constructive, and occasional, use of the devil’s advocate during your decision-making process might be a good thing, don’t let a full-time, unofficial devil’s advocate derail your meetings. Take steps to see if you can get the devil’s advocate to play a constructive role. The problem won’t go away because you ignore it, and as board chair it is your responsibility to deal with it. You will do your board and your board members a terrible disservice if you don’t tackle this problem head on.

For more information about this topic, or for other governance advice, we encourage you to contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or [email protected].