Thinking differently: the benefits of cognitive diversity

Thinking differently: the benefits of cognitive diversity

When we think about diversity, it is identity or demographic differences that immediately spring to mind – factors such as race, age, gender, ethnicity or religion. Much less obvious or appreciated is cognitive diversity – the differences in the way that people think.

In any organisation, cognitive diversity matters because it is the only way to guard against group-think. As Margaret Heffernan put it in her book ‘Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril’, “Diversity isn’t a form of political correctness, but an insurance policy against internally generated blindness that leaves institutions exposed and out of touch.”

Author and management thinker, Steve Denning, has suggested that cognitive diversity can comprise four distinct dimensions.

1. Diverse perspectives: people have different ways of representing situations and problems. They see the set of possibilities confronting them differently.

2. Diverse interpretations: people put things into different categories and classifications.

3. Diverse heuristics: People have different ways of generating solutions to problems. Some people like to talk through their thinking about problems; others prefer to write the solutions first and then talk.

4. Diverse predictive models: Some people analyse a situation. Others may look for the story that lies behind it.

When these differences are harnessed in a positive way, the benefits to an organisation can be marked. Writing in Scientific American last year, Professor Katherine W. Phillips, senior vice dean at Columbia Business School said: “[Cognitive] diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations.”

In their 2013 paper for Deloitte University Press, “Diversity’s new frontier: Diversity of thought and the future of the workforce”, Anesa Diaz-Uda, Carmen Medina & Beth Schill explained how “diversity of thought can help organisations make better decisions and complete tasks more successfully, because it triggers more careful and creative information processing than typically occurs in homogeneous groups.”

Three key benefits of cognitive diversity were identified in the paper:

1. It helps guard against groupthink and expert overconfidence.

2. It helps increase the scale of new insights.

3. It helps organisations identify employees who can best tackle their most pressing problems.

But that’s not always the case. There’s also evidence that higher levels of cognitive diversity can sometimes result in less communication among executives, less effective decision-making and less positive organisational outcomes. For example, disagreement over strongly-held preferences and beliefs can result in head-butting rather than resolution, leading executives to quietly address strategic issues behind the scenes rather than risk conflict with colleagues. In fact, one study, by C. C. Miller, L. M. Burke and W. H. Glick, found a negative correlation between cognitive diversity and effective executive decision-making.

The key to cognitive diversity, then, is being able to harness its positive effects. And that demands individuals who have the open mindedness and curiosity to embrace other points of view and be prepared to share of knowledge. In a Board context, that means having the right people using the right processes and – critically – an effective Board Chair with the ability to balance the group dynamics without getting bogged down in time-consuming argument.

As the Deloitte University Press paper highlights, cognitive diversity is not yet a priority in most organisations. To address this issue, the paper’s authors suggest that organisations focus on three areas:

Three steps for better cognitive diversity

1. Recruit differently: It is key that the job description as well as the interview process contain the competencies and questions designed to help identify candidates who will bring fresh insight, new perspectives and, most importantly, challenge old thinking.

2. Manage differently: Rather than stifling debate and rejecting new ideas because they threaten the status quo, businesses must focus on creating an inclusive learning culture where people feel comfortable being themselves, contributing ideas and learning from each other.

3. Promote differently: Organisations should actively promote different thinking styles within the business and factor this into career development. They should also support and encourage people who think out of the box and reward their contribution to innovation and problem-solving.

According to Warren Partner’s Tim Kemp, one of the biggest contributions recruiters can make is coaxing a client out of their comfort zone in order to ensure that they don’t keep recruiting the same type of people that they already employ, from a homogenous candidate pool. That means looking for individuals who are innovators rather than adaptors if a step change in performance is required, Tim says.

“Innovators tend to reject the common perceptions of problems and redefine them, they are less-interested in quick-fixes, and prefer to focus on long-term solutions. They’re not afraid to offer multiple solutions to problems that often require fundamental changes to the status quo.”

“Adaptors tend to accept problems as defined, seek early and easily-implemented solutions and stick to rules and consensus. In other words, they’re ‘yes men’.”

Something else for recruiters to look out for is what Tim calls ‘individual agility’.

“These are people who display a high level of curiosity, bring a fresh perspective to situations and can explain their thinking to others. They are also open minded, self-aware and keen to learn from others. They are comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, use the appropriate analytical lenses to view issues and make sound and timely decisions balancing analysis, judgement and intuition.”

“Having people like that in an organisation will go a long way to building real cognitive diversity. But even then, you still need effective leadership to harness its benefits.”

Posted by Tim Kemp on

Tim Kemp

Tim Kemp


Tim is a member of our Industrial Practice. He has a depth of experience across a broad range of sectors including, B2B services, technology, energy, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In addition to placing candidates in senior executive and Board roles within UK and international market leaders, Tim also has an impressive track record partnering with high-growth SMEs, PE backed and family businesses.