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Promote cognitive diversity to boost performance

Recruitment should focus on looking at where different thought processes can create opportunities and improve problem solving, says

If organisations want to accelerate diversity, and reap the rewards of more diverse teams, they need to start getting to grips with cognitive diversity.

The benefits of a diverse workforce are widely reported. McKinsey’s series of reports on the subject from the past decade have shown recurring trends of financial outperformance among companies with greater gender and ethnicity diversity on executive teams.

Progress is being made in workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but there’s still a long way to go. Driving meaningful, positive change must start by looking beyond demographic diversity. In many instances, well-intended initiatives to improve DEI begin with protected characteristics such as ethnicity, gender or age. But prioritising cognitive diversity – how people think – can be a shortcut to real diversity. This approach is based on the fact that the way individuals receive, interpret and act on information varies significantly according to their lived experiences.

Read more: How to create a thriving neurodiverse workplace

These experiences are influenced by culture, ethnicity, socio-economic backgrounds, gender, age and ability. Each person is a unique product of their individual experiences and influences. 

By honing in on cognitive diversity, organisations will enhance talent and enrich DEI. Doing this requires a new approach to hiring, promoting and developing people.

Changing the narrative

Embracing cognitive diversity starts by focusing on which unique individual is best for the team rather than best for the role, with the intention of introducing new people whose differences will complement a team. It’s a small but game-changing shift from the status quo.

By assessing a team to understand its strengths and gaps, and how future-ready it is, an organisation can more effectively diagnose what’s missing in terms of capabilities. Key aptitudes can be pinpointed, including strategic thinking, appetite for risk, empathy, learning ability and digital skills. Organisations can then define the differences they require to create high-performing teams.

Reframing recruitment

As an example of how increasing cognitive diversity can have a positive impact, the former chair of Alberta Investment Management Corporation, Mark Wiseman, recognised there were two types of errors impacting investment success.

Read more: How neurodivergent individuals contribute to innovation

A type-one error referred to investments being made in things that performed poorly, whereas a type-two error recognised the decision not to invest in something that went on to perform successfully. The investors were typically good at dealing with the first error, but less adept at recognising and adjusting for type-two errors. In this instance, diversity of thinking on investment teams has the potential to mitigate errors by opening the team’s thinking to the possibility of novel or unusual ideas.

Creating this understanding of cognitive diversity can be used to reframe recruitment. Does a team really require another individual with so many years’ designated sector experience? Do they need another individual that graduated from a certain university or business school? Will hiring another person with qualifications and professional experience already mirrored in the existing team really add value or transform performance?

Instead, recruitment can focus on looking at where different thought processes can create opportunities and improve problem-solving. Diversity in lived experiences is likely to feed innovation and encourage the constructive challenging of conventional practices. Fresh perspectives will challenge the day-to-day norms in decision-making and ways of working to create new value.

Unlocking cognitive diversity

As well as revisiting and removing non-essential criteria during recruitment, cognitive diversity can benefit from a review of internal workplace cultures and processes. HR and other business leaders can start by reviewing how forthcoming teams are. Do they respectfully challenge the consensus? How instrumental are their views to leadership decisions?

Read more: Understanding the business benefits of cognitive diversity

Similarly, are team members comfortable taking risks? And are they innovators and pioneers? Do they contribute above and beyond? Or are they more comfortable operating within the confines of their job description?

In many instances, organisations will find they have teams of chameleons. People step into work and slip on a corporate cloak to go with the flow. Their diversity of thought is, inadvertently, suppressed. Creating psychologically safe and encouraging working environments that promote cognitive diversity will unlock new ideas and practical suggestions for improving performance.

Diversity in thinking can create rounded teams that are more representative of customers, enabling organisations to get closer to what motivates the markets they are targeting. Encouraging more diverse thinking will also expand talent pools and naturally increase demographic diversity.  

By Cise Kilic, principal consultant at people advisory business New Street Consulting Group