The Role of the Devil’s advocate “10th Man” in Business

By Paolo Barbesino, PhD and Qaalfa Dibeehi

The Role of the Devil’s advocate “10th Man” in Business

On LinkedIn there  was recently a host of  characterizations about toxic personas that should never be part of any leadership team — and yet they actually are. Such bad corporate citizens nurture the groupthink of these compact social formations that lead an organization. We also know that fighting groupthink is existential for any organization.

Paolo states that in his career, even with the couple of very most toxic people he has had the misfortune to work with, he always tried to act as the “Tenth man”.

Popularized by the 2013 zombie film World War Z, the role’s origin goes back to the Catholic Church. The so called advocatus diaboli (Devil’s advocate) was tasked with running a thorough background check on those who were poised to be named saints. As usual St. Peter and St. Paul would never agree on the outcome.

The Tenth Man role executes on the eponymous rule: if nine people in a group of ten agree on an issue, the tenth member must take a contrarian viewpoint and assume the other nine are wrong.

Despite the growing army of tenth women and men, groupthink is unfortunately fueled by another toxic behavior: withholding information within the very leadership team. This is often expressed by a refusal to talk, or by statements that follow a moment of friction or disagreement among team members such as: “I have heard both sides”. Not sharing any further detail is a bad service to leadership.

An easy way to identify where the information Black Hole sits in your leadership team, is sending out an informal message on WhatsApp, Telegram, or any other more secure means of instant corporate communication, asking for a simple piece of information. Something like a phone number, a digital copy of a deck of the infamous three, the actual sales numbers, and not what you share with analysts.

There will always be one in your leadership team that will come up with an excuse for failing the share.  You are now halfway. What is left is to get rid of the toxic guy, preferably with some appropriate learning ritual for the entire organization.

The truth is that few of us want a 10th man on the team in a serious way.  We especially do not want to encounter one towards the end of project.  Nevertheless, the 1oth man role is exactly what organisations forging ahead into areas like AI need.  Glyn Luckett recently posted the following diagram on LinkedIn  describing what it really takes to implement AI…

The 10th man role will be heavily focused on the constraints (bottom of the diagram: legal, ethical\ transparency, bias & security considerations) as these are the risk mitigators.  Unfortunately, these are the very items that are often glossed over or whitewashed.    One high profile case highlighting this Google’s RESIN. As reported in Wired 2024, “Google’s Responsible Innovation team, known as RESIN, was located inside the Office of Compliance and Integrity, in the company’s global affairs division.” Teams across Google had the opportunity to submit projects for review by RESIN, a group responsible for evaluating AI initiatives. RESIN provided feedback and occasionally halted ideas that violated the company’s AI principles. Notably, they prevented the release of AI image generators and voice synthesis algorithms that could be exploited for creating deepfakes.  Early reviews of AI systems prove valuable by preventing costly ethical lapses.  However, Google split up RESIN and got rid of its 10th man leader,  Jen Gennai.

Interestingly, compliance is where the formal corporate wide role of the 10th man often effectively falls.. and we know how traditional compliance is often though of inside the company.   There are two other areas that could also easily play this corporate role:  customer experience and sustainability.  At the core of these 10th man roles is the idea that negative externalities exist and that if not accounted for will harm the business in a serious way and may even put the business at risk as an ongoing concern.  It requires one to look at the business or project as an outsider, a maverick.  For this type role to be effective, the organisation needs

  • mature leaders who are not threatened by differencing points of view
  • an internal education system that supports and trains leaders on how to provide psychological safety
  • to have career progression based not only on short term decision making.

Only the most mature and sophisticated businesses will have these but sustained success over the long haul is dependent on a strong and healthy 10th man perspective living inside the company.