We all like the idea of creativity, innovation, new perspectives, and fresh energy. That’s what everyone demands from their employees and organizations — sustained evolution to changing times. Companies across the globe have already woken up to the benefits of hiring individuals from diverse groups in terms of age, gender, ethnic backgrounds, and abilities.
However, a lot of companies still tend to hire based on common business ideologies and principles. For example, if “Pam” from HR works efficiently, you may be tempted to find other “Pams” with the exact same ideas and qualifications. In some cases, if someone takes a position in a new company, they, over time, try to hire other people who resemble their old team — so much so that they turn the new company or team into an imitation of the old.
What does this lead to?
Well, it’s tempting to surround yourself with what’s familiar to you. If you find people with the same working styles and business perspectives, there won’t be a lot of clashes. If you surround yourself with “Yes Men”, your worldview won’t be challenged. But, on the other hand, companies across the globe are learning that this can also lead to utter stagnancy, which, in turn, leads to a slow and painful death for a company that can’t evolve.
That’s where cognitive diversity comes in. In this article, we discuss what cognitive diversity is, what are its benefits, and how you can implement cognitive diversity in your team.
Cognitive Diversity, as the name implies, is a form of diversity that includes people who think differently. It’s the inclusion of wide groups of people with varying, even clashing, worldview, skills, and thinking in a business setting.
For example, let’s consider the primacy that interview processes place on social interaction. Regardless of the role being filled by the position, almost all companies place emphasis on subjective factors of social interaction. As such, those who are socially challenged often don’t make the cut even if they have key skills they can bring to the team.
A good example of this would be individuals in the Autism Spectrum Disorder. Individuals with this disorder may have trouble following through on neurotypical social cues, but they often excel at pattern recognition and numbers. As such, they can make excellent additions to teams and bring some much-needed skills, but they’re often passed over because they don’t fit the organization’s idea of a functional candidate.
This is only one simple example of why cognitive diversity is important. It’s a principle that underscores the need to include people who think and act differently than you because they can genuinely benefit your organization in ways you couldn’t have foreseen.
So now that you have a brief idea of what constitutes cognitive diversity, let’s explore some of the key benefits of cognitive diversity in the workplace.
Almost all employers consider if a candidate is the “right fit” for their corporate culture during the hiring process. This basically boils down to whether the individual thinks and acts in the same way as the rest of the team — regardless of their skills and qualifications. In the name of synergy in the workplace, this line of reasoning leads to “groupthink”, i.e., a tendency for people to cluster in groups that think alike.
In fact, companies go so far as to hire individuals from the same pipelines, alumni of the same universities, etc. This further contributes to a culture of “groupthink” that drastically narrows the organization’s insight into perspectives other than their own.
Eliminating the ethos of groupthink is crucial to reach new and better ideas. Sure, hiring people from the same pool, social backgrounds, and universities may help them work well together and you may avoid clashes in the workplace. But those clashes are the very cauldrons in which fresh and innovative ideas start brewing.
In the modern age, inclusivity and diversity is highly valued by clients and customers. By hiring people from different backgrounds and cognitive styles, your organization will be seen as inclusive, diverse, and ethical. This will allow you to reach a broader demography, and, in turn, grow even more.
According to studies, 70% of the senior executives in the Fortune 500 companies are white men and the number rises to 91% in small firms. This is one very objective means of measuring how the world is still falling drastically short in terms of cognitive and even social diversity.
However, studies have shown that companies with a heterogenous board of directors are far more adept at striking creative and innovative wells of ideas. These companies are able to leverage their cognitive diversity towards strategic leadership that helps them continue growing without stagnation.
To quote entrepreneur and CEO Margaret Heffernan, “Diversity isn’t a form of political correctness, but an insurance policy against internally generated blindness that leaves institutions exposed and out of touch.” This is true because cognitive diversity in a workplace can enable the entire team to grow as individuals, and thereby also serve the company better.
According to management thinker Steve Denning, cognitive diversity has the following dimensions:
It’s difficult to ensure completely cognitive diversity because we all have inbuilt internal biases. As such, in order to create a truly diverse workplace, we have to identify and work against those internal biases.
For example, while selecting employees, you can root out subjective determinants like how well the individual would get along with the team based on social behavior. Yes, if the position demands social interaction, that’s a key criterion to look into. But if you’re hiring someone for a technical spot like software engineering, do you really need to know if they can sustain eye contact or if they have a sense of humor?
While recruiting, if you come across a candidate that challenges your way of thinking or criticizes your organization, you should perk up your ears rather than shutting them down. A candidate who’s capable of identifying — and vocalizing — your weaknesses is exactly the kind of candidate you need to expand your organization. This also applies to business meetings — rather than stifling new ideas, you should actively root for them.
Leadership should also actively promote different thinking styles within their teams. They should actively encourage people to come up with new solutions or challenge the status quo. If they come up with a new and creative solution to break the mold, you should actively reward them.
The prospect of cognitive diversity is scary. It’s all too easy to slip into your own comfortable cocoon and surround yourself with people who think just like you. But while that will remove all friction from your company, it will also remove all modes of change and evolution.
Over time, resistance to cognitive diversity can doom your organization. On the other hand, a truly cognitively diverse company can benefit from fresh ideas, fresh perspectives, creative problem-solving avenues, and better strategic leadership!
You just have to know how to check your own internal biases in order to usher a truly diverse and inclusive workplace that won’t just improve your global image but also improve upon your ROI. The benefits may not be immediately noticeable, but they’ll come in time.