The Value of a Devil’s Advocate in HR: From the Archive

by Michael Haberman on February 27, 2018 · 0 comments


Having someone play the Devil's Advocate can be useful in HR.

Having someone play the Devil’s Advocate can be useful in HR.

Someone sent me an email reminding me how much they liked this post. I thought I would republish it, as I think this is an important concept for HR. 

In the Roman Catholic Church, from the year 1000 until 1978, fewer than 450 people were canonized as saints. In 1978, Pope John Paul II removed the use of a promotor fidei whose job it was to question why that individual should be made a saint. As a result, in the 38 years since 1978, 450 people have been canonized. I learned this as I was reading a section on confirmation bias in the book The Wisest One in the Room, which I have referred to before.

A human condition

According to Gilovich and Ross, we as human have a tendency to look for evidence that confirms what we believe. They say “The more you want a proposition to be true, the more inclined you are to look for evidence that supports it.” I think we saw good evidence of this in the Presidential election, on both sides. It is called confirmation bias, and it is a mistake often made in the interview process. It can be offset with the knowledge that it exists; in fact, it is one of the major tenets of behavioral interviewing.

Disconfirming

I was taught behavioral interviewing by Paul Green back in the 1980’s. In his training he talked about interviewer errors and the fact that we all have a tendency, if we happen to like something about a candidate, or dislike something about a candidate, to look for evidence that confirms our initial impression. Paul said that to be effective and counteract this tendency you had to look for “disconfirming” evidence. You had to be your own “devil’s advocate.” You had to ask yourself “Why am I liking this person so much?” This gave you the chance to have a more balanced view of the candidate. I found it to be excellent advice.

Why not a Devil’s Advocate in the HR department?

If each HR department had a promotor fidei, or Devil’s advocate, it might help you make consequential decisions with more confidence. Rather than looking for evidence on why a decision should be made you could ask the question on why a decision should NOT be made, or why a product should NOT be purchased, or why a person should NOT be fired. As Gilovich and Ross say:

What you need to do is to slow down and consciously look for information that challenges whatever proposition you are evaluating, especially if the proposition conforms to your current view or preferences.”

So the next time you are faced with a decision where the answer just seems too easy pull that little devil out of your pocket and put it to use.


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