Cognitive diversity – the differences in how people think, process information and solve problems – is crucial for high functioning teams.
Teams with cognitive diversity are able to solve complex problems faster, perform better1, as well as exhibit more creativity and innovation2.
Teams that have diversity of thought and ideas are able to tackle new and uncertain situations more successfully. To date, companies have predominantly focused only on demographic diversity – such as age, gender, orientation and ethnicity. These are certainly facets that can enable diversity of thought, but companies should do more to include diverse perspectives in their teams. Without this, companies and teams can fall prey to “groupthink” – where people strive for agreement and harmony. Groupthink can stifle critical thinking and innovation, necessary to survive in today’s competitive landscape.
Here are a few ways companies can foster an inclusive environment that promotes and celebrates cognitive diversity:
Build psychological safety
Psychological safety is the belief that you will not be judged or punished for expressing your ideas, concerns or mistakes. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, not everyone fully contributes and the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealised. One way to create psychological safety is by normalising vulnerability. When leaders openly talk about failures and share their experiences – both positive and negative, it helps open up a non-judgmental space for honest and open communication, and people feel safe expressing their authentic selves.
Hire with diversity of thought in mind
We all have unconscious biases. These biases can affect hiring decisions. Companies have to be intentional in seeking out and hiring team members with diverse styles and approaches. One way to do this is to recruit and hire for talent that have strengths and skills that are not strongly represented in the current team. Hiring people with different educational backgrounds, specialisations or industry experience can also bring in unique perspectives and problem solving skills that increase performance.
Assess your teams
Assessments that help measure and understand people’s natural preferences, unique strengths and behaviours can give companies and managers insight on how to best leverage the talent of their teams . This can be a great way to create and benefit from a cognitively diverse team. For example, getting insights on people’s strengths can help managers create teams with complementary strengths and skills that lead to high performance and better problem solving.
In order to truly benefit from diverse perspectives, companies and managers should create a collaborative and stimulating environment that welcomes different opinions. Managers of diverse teams should be encouraged to re-think the idea of conflict and shift their perspective from seeing differences in opinion as a problem, to viewing them as constructive. A well-managed diverse team is encouraged to engage in constructive conflict that questions assumptions, pushes creative thinking, while upholding the end goal of coming up with the best solution to problems they are trying to solve.
In a work environment that is rapidly changing, promoting diverse thinking styles is key to building an innovative and agile culture. Supporting a cognitively diverse environment takes strong company leadership that is not afraid to re-think and question assumptions, empower their people and as a result, stay ahead of the curve.
1 Reynolds, A. and Lewis, D. (2017). Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse. [online] Harvard Business Review.
2 Torchia, M., Calabrò, A. and Morner, M. (2015). Board of Directors’ Diversity, Creativity, and Cognitive Conflict. International Studies of Management & Organization, 45(1), pp.6–24.