The Top Performers Field Guide: The Devil’s Advocate

“If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas. If you want the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically or in writing, and make sure people can’t see each other’s ideas until everyone has had a chance to contribute.” – Susan Cain

Flying anywhere in the world during the early days of October 2001 was an exercise in fear and paranoia. The September 11 attacks were not a month gone, and the aviation industry was reeling from the repercussions of the terrorism. Airlines needed time to adjust to the chaos, and a bit of good news wouldn’t hurt matters. That was not to be when 39,000 Swissair passengers found themselves stranded at airports throughout the world on October 2. All Swissair flights were canceled, and ticket counters closed. Rumors of another terrorist plot circulated terminals, but Swissair’s problems were mundane in comparison. The company had run out of money.

Swissair had a sterling reputation in the aviation community, often being called the Flying Bank for impressive runs of profitability and expansion. Running up to 2000, airline deregulations and increased competition degraded Swissair’s financial picture. The situation was so dire that in 2000 alone, Swissair nearly doubled its debt to a whopping $9 billion and was bleeding cash. Swissair’s board made cutbacks but was not concerned about the debt–because they were the Flying Bank. The board thought things would turn around, and boy, they did. On October 2, 2001, Swissair’s debt load was massive enough that no financial institution in the world would loan them another franc. The airline didn’t have the funds to pay for the fuel or airport taxes, so all operations suddenly halted.

The Swissair crisis was caused by governments, banks, and the Swissair board believing they were “too big” or “too good” to fail. Each of these entities formed a “mutual admiration society” that made the elephant in the room invisible. The phenomenon is called groupthink and exists when no one wants to pose challenges for fear of disrupting harmony. As leaders, we must create an environment where valid disruption is encouraged, even demanded. Ask your team to call you out when they disagree with your points of view. I have been known to tell my senior associates, “If all you ever say is ‘yes’ or ‘I agree,’ then one of us is redundant.” 

Don’t be Swissair.

The Devil’s Advocate Accelerators

  • Name three people around you whom you have empowered to challenge your assumptions and to give you critical feedback when it’s warranted.
  • If you couldn’t name three that you have already empowered, identify three that you will empower to challenge you.
  • Be overt about your intentions with these three people. Go to them, buy them coffee, tell them you’re building an informal “board of advisors,” and enlist them for that purpose.