The Value of the Skeptic in the Workplace
Skepticism is about having a questioning attitude, a sense of “Tell me more so I can understand.” It’s a process of applying critical thinking to determine the validity of an idea, rather than latching on to a preconceived conclusion and hanging on tight.
In the workplace, a healthy dose of skepticism seems both appropriate and valuable in most major undertakings because it acknowledges the human tendency to make mistakes and to fall victim to cognitive biases that affect our judgment and decision making. Furthermore, it acknowledges that we each see the world through filters that distort our perceptions every bit as much as photographic filters do. Alas, none of us sees or knows it all.
Still, if coworkers react with skepticism to every idea and decision, you’d be justified in having the urge to squelch their questions. But if you’re in a position of leadership—whether it’s an organization that you lead or a three-member team—you’re going to face skeptics. So what can you do?
One approach is to ignore the skeptics and instead devote your energy to pleasing the believers. Another is to do just the reverse and listen to the skeptics, recognizing that they may have some insight that would cause you to change your perspective. After all, it’s a bad idea to surround yourself with people who think exactly like you and never challenge your thoughts and views.
A third approach is to harness the energy of the skeptic by having the person serve as a devil’s advocate. Strictly speaking, a devil’s advocate is someone who argues against a position, not because the person disagrees with the position but rather to help determine the validity of the position. In any important undertaking, it seems worthwhile for all participants to put on their devil's advocate’s hat and ask: What could go wrong? What are we overlooking or ignoring? What should we consider now that, if we don’t, we’ll regret it later?
But a person playing the devil’s advocate could also truly disagree with a particular position and be called upon to express the reasons for disagreeing. In the process, those listening to the devil’s advocate might come around to a point of view they rejected initially. One of my favorite books, The Corporate Fool by David Firth, proposes the idea of a position created specifically to question decisions and challenge the status quo. What a fun job that would be!