The Devil's in the Details

Michael Metzger

Nearly every big firm claims to be building a caring and ethical culture. Ori Hadomi, CEO of Mazor Robotics, is skeptical. He should be. Surveys indicate bosses are eight times more likely than the average worker to believe the company has a healthy culture. Hadomi’s solution is a Devil’s Advocate. That’s interesting. The idea of a Devil’s Advocate comes from scripture as well as church history.

Mazor Robotics is a medical technology company based in Israel. It’s recognized as having a healthy culture, but Hadomi has taken an unconventional route to get there. He believes the most obvious mistake a company can make is to believe an optimistic scenario. “Positive thinking is important to a certain extent when you want to motivate people. But it’s very dangerous when you plan based on that. So one of our takeaways from that was to appoint one of the executive members as a devil’s advocate.” 1

The individual playing Devil’s Advocate helps Mazor discern the five biggest mistakes it made the previous year. “The big ones, not the small ones,” Hadomi adds. “It’s natural that we make mistakes. What do we do with these mistakes as an organization?” Not wanting to repeat them, the Devil’s Advocate probes for problems, helping the executive team implement solutions.

Hadomi’s solution comes straight from scripture. The gospel is a “four-chapter” story with human beings created to live righteously. But because of the fall, those who are religious can become “excessively righteous and overly wise” (Eccl. 7:16). It ruins them because they lose touch with reality. It works the same way with pagans, especially those who are wealthy or highly successful. People want to ride their coattails so they flatter the boss rather than help him or her face reality. The boss slowly but surely loses touch with reality.

The solution is having someone to argue the dark side of the case. The prophet Elijah did this, playing Devil’s Advocate by ridiculing the prophets of Baal as being full of it (1 Kings 18). The Apostle Paul took the same tack, lampooning overly zealous Christians in the church at Corinth for being excessively righteous (II Cor. 11:19). The Roman Catholic Church went so far as to institutionalize the office of Devil’s Advocate in 1587. Pope Sixtus V established the office of the Promoter of the Faith to argue the case against a proposed canonization of a candidate for sainthood. It became popularly known as the Devil’s Advocate, with a canon lawyer appointed by the Church taking a skeptical view of the candidate’s character and looking for holes in the evidence.

The Devil’s Advocate was opposed in court by God’s Advocate, whose job was to make the argument in favor of canonization. Pope John Paul II abolished the office of Devil’s Advocate in 1983, but in cases of controversy, the Vatican still occasionally seeks the testimony of critics of a candidate for canonization. The recently deceased columnist Christopher Hitchens was asked to testify against the beatification of Mother Teresa in 2002, a role he would later drolly describe as being akin to “representing the Evil One, as it were, pro bono.” Hitchens was however the right man to play Devil’s Advocate, since the office requires your toughest critics, not your kindest friends.

I can count on one hand those companies that I know have a Devil’s Advocate. It’s easy to claim to have one, but in most cases executive leaders have congenial colleagues rather than a consigliore. In Mario Puzo’s Godfather, a consigliore was the chief advisor to Mafia leadership who acted as crap detector. A consigliore did not risk his life in pointing out problems. Even King Arthur’s Roundtable had Devil’s Advocates, called court jesters. They ridiculed the king to keep him in touch with reality. In an economic downturn, few companies have such a person since employees fear for their jobs, leaving bosses to luxuriate in La-La Land. This is disturbingly evident in a new study conducted by the Boston Research Group.

The “National Governance, Culture and Leadership Assessment” surveyed thousands of American employees, from every rung of the corporate ladder. It found that bosses are eight times more likely than the average worker to believe that their organization is healthy. Some 27 percent of bosses believe their firm inspires the workers. Only 4 percent of employees agree. Likewise, 41 percent of bosses say their firm rewards performance based on values rather than merely on financial results. Only 14 percent of employees swallow this. 2 Rita Gunther McGrath of Columbia Business School would say these statistics are an example of bosses suffering from “confirmation bias.” Out of touch with reality, she suggests that company leaders guard against this bias by giving one executive team member the job of looking for flaws. Wise Christians have long advocated for a contrarian voice that calls a spade a spade.

When his daughter Elizabeth was only 15 years old, William Wilberforce wrote a letter to her, asking if she had accustomed herself to self-suspicion. “We read in the Scripture that ‘our hearts are deceitful above all things,’ that we are all prone to flatter ourselves, to form too high an estimate of our own good qualities, and too low an idea of our bad ones.” He then asked Elizabeth, “Now be honest with yourself, my very dear child. Have you been accustomed to distrust the judgment you have in the habit of forming of your own character?”3 Wilberforce was asking Elizabeth if she had a Devil’s Advocate.

Most leaders are familiar with the old adage “God is in the details,” meaning whatever we do should be done thoroughly – that details are important. They’d be wise to familiarize themselves with the variant of that proverb, “The Devil is in the details,” referring to the fact that we can be unaware of the darker parts of our lives. A Devil’s Advocate addresses this problem, which is why companies – as well as churches – are wise to employ one in the task of looking for the Devil in the details.

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1 Adam Bryant, “Every Team Should Have a Devil’s Advocate,” The New York Times, December 24, 2011.
2 “The view from the top, and bottom,” The Economist, September 24, 2011.
3 “Private Papers of William Wilberforce,” published by Burt Franklin, (New York, NY), pp. 165-68.

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5 thoughts on “The Devil's in the Details”

  1. Often the Devil’s Advocate is the one who simply states the obvious – the one who says the emperor has no clothes on.
    Proverbs 27:5: Better an open rebuke than hidden love.

  2. Guilty as charged, most likely. In a SMALL company – 3 ladies and me – this could definitely be a problem. I will pass this to them as required reading. And then tell them to each come up with one well defined criticism of what we are doing, how we are doing it, or one opportunity that we are missing. “Tell me what I am not seeing, hearing, smelling…..” I hope I have established a culture of honest feedback with no retaliation or need to be a “boss pleaser.” But, with no Devil’s Advocate how would I know?
    When I was a submarine captain I knew that there were a LOT of things that went on aboard the ship to which I was not privy. I ALWAYS kept the door to my stateroom open at sea. The passageway outside the CO’s stateroom was a congregating place for off watch sailors to shoot the breeze. CO’s I had on my other 4 ships chased sailors away, and frequently shut their doors, preferring peace and quiet. After several nights at sea with me as a new CO, I remember overhearing sailors speculate on why I left my door open. I guess they never figured out that my best source of “intel” was overhearing their candid conversations. For three years I acted totally indifferent to their noise and chatter, but I learned more about the crew and what was going on that way than through any official channel.
    Maybe it is time to “listen up” here at my business.
    McDonald

  3. Thanks, Mike! Great reminder. I remember watching the muppets as a child (I know, no wisecracks). My favorite characters were, and still are, the ‘two old guys in the balcony.’ I have often thought that everyone needs two old guys in the balcony reminding us that we are full of pooh

    Looking forward to seeing you soon!

  4. TELL IT LIKE IT IS (NOT LIKE IT AIN’T)

    A man that flattereth his neighbour spreadeth a net for his feet. (Proverbs 29:5)

    Honest employees are valuable company assets.

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