Devil's Advocate or Guardian Angel?

Got a pesky devil’s advocate on your church board – you know, that guy or gal who always opposes the majority and resists new initiatives?

 In certain circumstances, could that person serve as your guardian angel?

Social scientists tell us that individuals serving on small task teams such as a church board tend to evolve into certain predictable roles. Bear in mind, we are not talking about formal positions but “group roles”; individuals begin to demonstrate somewhat predictable way of behaving in the group.

One group of researchers (Cragan, Wright, Kasch), tell us highly functioning teams require, at a minimum, a task leader, a social-emotional leader, a tension-releaser, an information provider, and a central negative.

Each role serves to keep the team on task, innovative, and highly productive.

Let’s cut to the chase and focus our attention on one of those essential roles, the central negative, also known as the devil’s advocate.

A devil’s advocate can save you time, money, hassle and prevent programs and projects from failing because their hesitations, questions and criticism may identify previously overlooked issues!

Teams, committees and boards exist because for certain tasks, a team accomplishes better results than an individual. Yet, in order to produce the best results, the best ideas must come to the forefront. And in order for the best ideas to come out, the board must generate maximal ideational conflict.

The phrase “maximal ideational conflict” contains the key.

Devil’s advocates, by questioning long and hard, ensure that all ideas are thoroughly examined. They help the team avoid premature decisions and errors in judgement.

Now, to be fair, experts also warn of the “self-centered follower”. This person provides high negativity, as does the central negative. However, the self-centered follower, unlike a central negative, operates from selfish motives, aims to obstruct, blocks and obfuscates progress, and has no intention of being convinced by any amount of data or reason.

It may not be easy to discern the difference but you must do so. As they say with tongue in cheek, “That is why you get paid the big bucks, pastor!”

Savvy, emotionally intelligent pastors use their heightened awareness of other’s motives, understanding of group dynamics, and polished interpersonal skills to appreciate and facilitate the role of the devil’s advocate. In exchange, their guardian angels help them avoid costly errors and polish good ideas into great ones!

-Bud Clarkson

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