Why Cognitive Diversity is the Latest Issue

Tuesday 23 October 2018
Experts say team diversity starts with mental processes
people sitting around the table and working together

The number of schemes to increase the proportion of women, BAME and LGBT people within business has grown in recent years, and the latest diversity recruitment drive cuts to the heart of the matter. Cognitive diversity is a new focus for managers, and it means building teams of people with different ways of thinking.

Managers Need Critical Feedback

When it comes to mental processes, some people are more analytical than visual, others more verbal than practical. Teams consisting of individuals with all of these qualities provide managers with different strengths so they can make better decisions, based on unbiased feedback.

Jane Welsh, a senior investment consultant and founding member of inclusion campaign group Diversity Project, says cognitive functions can typically be thought of in two ways – how we gather information and how we make decisions.

“Do individuals gather data literally – such as facts – or do they make more intuitive sense of what they see out there?” she challenges. “Do people take decisions in a very logical way, following from A to B to C, or do they take decisions on what they feel to be right, or their values. There’s no right or wrong.”

Great Minds Don’t Think Alike

Research shows cognitive diversity can be an antidote to ‘groupthink’, leading to better problem-solving, especially in complex business scenarios.

Ashridge Business School’s Alison Reynolds and London Business School director David Lewis found teams with the greatest amount of cognitive diversity consistently outperformed more homogenous groups, in a 2017 study.

Elsewhere, McKinsey has calculated that diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform competitors. It found that diversity could add £150bn a year to the UK economy by 2025.

The Chartered Management Institute’s Management Manifesto urges executives to prioritise diversity in their teams by offering greater training opportunities, boosting flexible working and committing to pay transparency measures.

Welsh says: “If you’re running a business or developing strategies for clients, there are many risks to having a team that is too homogenous. Also, if you are an outward-facing organisation, you need people that think differently so they can work with different clients effectively.”

Cognitive Diversity Is Not About Personality

Cognitive diversity is not about recruiting different personalities. Welsh says that if people think too differently they will struggle to work together: “I remember doing an exercise many years ago, where people with an extreme [use of] ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ were put in a team together to work on a problem, and it was awful. They just couldn’t communicate – there was too much cognitive diversity. Having people with a balance of skills and ways of thinking helped bridge the gap.”

If you want to create teams with a good balance of cognitive diversity, bear in mind these three tips:

Three Tips For Creating Cognitive Diversity In A Team

1. Understand Your Team:

Managers can find out how teams negotiate tasks by using surveys, games and tests.

Welsh explains: “Sharing results as a team can be really helpful. People then realise, ‘oh, that’s why you annoy me when you go on and on about X,’ and ‘that’s why you always say that in a meeting.’ Having that understanding of each other can be really good for a team and boost appreciation of each other’s efforts.”

2. Take Turns During Team Meetings:

By encouraging each person to offer their thoughts during a meeting, you can help cultivate an environment where team members know they can speak up, ask questions and share feedback.

“In traditional meetings, ninety per cent of time is spent on stuff that people already know, rather than listening to the people with a different perspective which might move things on a bit,” Welsh adds.

3. Avoid The Team ‘fit’ Recruitment Trap:

Unconscious bias directly affects cognitive diversity. Welsh explains: “That word ‘fit’ can lead you to just hiring the same old people all the time.”

Hiring candidates who have vastly different views on the world can be uncomfortable for managers – but often it provides the critical support needed to generate new and profitable ideas.

More information on the importance of diversity in organisations is available in the Management Manifesto