The Power of Cognitively Diverse Teams
The Power of Cognitively Diverse Teams

The Power of Cognitively Diverse Teams

Emotional Intelligence, Leadership Development, Company Culture, Diversity Equity & Inclusion   — 3 MIN


Cognitive diversity is the inclusion of people who have different problem-solving styles and perspectives than our own. Studies have shown that cognitively diverse teams achieve better results and innovate more because people think, process information, and see things differently. So, how do you build cognitive diversity?

  1. First, organizations should encourage employees to speak up, ask questions, and express disagreement. This expression will showcase the different thought patterns that can enhance innovation. 
  2. Second, organizations should train employees to recognize their own biases in thinking. Some people may not realize they are using the anchoring bias or placebo effect when making decisions. DEI learning can remedy that and lead to openness and acceptance of different ideas. 
  3. Third, organizations should hire diverse populations, including across gender, age, and cultures to help promote a difference in ideas. 

By not making cognitive diversity a priority, organizations are setting themselves up to fall prey to functional fixedness, a form of bias that hinders us from being creative. Having a team where everyone has a similar background, role, or mindset makes it challenging for new ideas to emerge. If you are leading a project or team that could use cognitive diversity, run the ideas past someone who typically has a different opinion than your own. Too much of the same thing inhibits growth. Your team needs to have healthy arguments and disagree respectfully

How can leaders assess their team's cognitive diversity? 

The next time you lead a project, take time to identify the cognitive personality of each member. When this is not possible, recognize the skills you are missing and challenge the group to look at issues through different lenses or seek outside input from others before reaching a final decision. Deloitte suggests that multi-faceted challenges need support from six angles: evidence, options, outcomes, people, process, and risk. Since no one can be perfect at all six perspectives, ensuring your team can represent these areas is invaluable for success. Your path to cognitive diversity begins when these thinking styles are included: 

  • Creatives: These individuals love conceptual chaos. They challenge assumptions and light up hearing an unsolved question. Their ideas may seem far-fetched but may add innovative insight as the group works through a problem. 
  • Detailers: No list is ever too long, but it needs to be well-organized. These personalities love getting down into the nitty-gritty. And let’s face it- you cannot build anything without an excellent architect. 
  • Conformists: These individuals are not climbing out of the box to do much brainstorming, but they are excellent at managing risk. Conformists are the glue in any group. 
  • Generalists: Approximately 50 percent of people have balanced thinking patterns. Be sure to add a healthy dose of these to your team. 

A study by Alison Reynolds and David Lewis utilized the AEM cube model to analyze the impact of cognitive diversity on problem-solving. The AEM cube studies how people handle change via knowledge processing (whether people prefer utilizing their existing knowledge vs. gaining new knowledge) and perspective (relying on your wisdom vs. drawing from others). Their research found that teams with higher diversity on the knowledge processing and perspectives spectrum solved problems faster than those with less cognitive diversity. 

How can leaders and organizations improve cognitive diversity? 

In a recent Forbes article, Marymount University President Dr. Irma Becerra outlines some ideas on how to bolster cognitive diversity at all levels: 

  • Lead with grace
    Everyone in an organization has room to grow, including CEOs and your leadership team. Operating from a lens of their credentials can make leaders susceptible to leaning into biased decision-making. The most effective leaders recognize that they still have more to learn and are willing to ask for help, delegate, and learn from those with even more expertise. They must also acknowledge their mistakes and allow those with differing views to share the floor.  
  • Hire changemakers
    Analyzing organizational hiring practices can help broaden your diverse talent pool. Creating concise evaluation metrics and allowing multiple interviews with different individuals can help prevent hiring from a similar-to-me bias. The right candidate has a fresh perspective on trends and can effectively communicate those ideas, helping to facilitate healthy discussion and breed innovation.  
  • Encourage active listening
    Sometimes, the loudest new ideas come from the quietest voice. By taking time to listen to your team, you allow everyone to share ideas and determine a path forward. As a leader, it is often natural to voice your opinion first, but letting your team brainstorm and find their voice helps strengthen your team from the inside and builds trust. By operating as a facilitator more than a director, employees can solve challenges amongst themselves, helping them grow their leadership skills.  
  • Be inclusive
    One of the best benefits of cognitive diversity is the natural way it brings multiple viewpoints to the table. Having people from different departments, backgrounds, roles, and tenure, increases the likelihood of gaining unique spins on tackling a problem or rolling out a new initiative. As a leader, creating a psychologically safe environment for your team to bring their voices and ideas to the table is crucial for fostering belonging within the organization.  

Without diverse thought at the helm of decision-making, organizations risk alienating marginalized employee populations and missing out on innovation opportunities that could already exist in their talent pipeline. Look around your team and organization today.

Does everyone problem-solve in a similar fashion? Do you share a similar background, experience level, or degree? What could you do to improve the cognitive diversity of your team to ensure you have the best possible outcome on your next project? Finding answers to these questions can promote strong ROI on organizational growth and innovation now and in the future.