Are You Overlooking This Important Kind of Diversity?

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Grodnitzky, Ph.D.
March 25, 2024

“Does diversity REALLY matter?” That question has been posed to me several times this year. My answer? Yes, diversity matters. And it’s a good thing. Research consistently shows a strong business case for diversity. In fact, I believe we should keep expanding how we think about diversity — and that cognitive diversity deserves to be a larger part of the conversation and of our workplace cultures.

What Is Cognitive Diversity?

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Alison Reynolds of Ashridge Business School and David Lewis of London Business School define cognitive diversity as “differences in perspective or information processing styles.”

Reynolds and Lewis were especially interested in one particular aspect of cognitive diversity: how individuals approach new situations. When faced with change, some people prefer to apply their own expertise and experience, while others tend to draw from the expertise and experience of others. Similarly, some people would rather use existing knowledge, but others prefer to generate new knowledge. Reynolds and Lewis found that teams with higher diversity delivered higher performance. Research has also discovered that cognitive diversity improves innovation, creativity and problem-solving

So why does it remain underutilized? 

Barriers to Cognitive Diversity

First, cognitive diversity sometimes gets ignored because it’s less visible than other types of diversity. We can’t make assumptions about how someone thinks based on their gender identity, age, culture, etc.

But perhaps the main obstacle to cognitive diversity is one that also impedes other kinds of diversity: As humans, we tend to seek out others who are similar to ourselves. In my work with companies, I often hear leaders say that they base hiring on “culture fit.” Of course, culture is important — I believe it is the key factor to organizational success. All too often, though, “we hire for culture fit” ends up meaning “we hire people who look like us” or, in the case of cognitive diversity, “we hire people who think like us.” If a candidate who represents cognitive diversity does make it into a company, the culture often pushes them out because “they just didn’t fit in.” Or the employee leaves themselves because people want to be part of the “in-group” where they work.

“Hiring people like us” can lead to functional bias because of low cognitive diversity. A team that reaches unanimous decisions quickly and consistently might seem like a good thing. But, in reality, the team members are probably suffering from functional bias. They tend to fall back on “how we’ve always done things” vs. finding new and innovative solutions.

Overcoming Functional Bias

If a lack of cognitive diversity is causing functional bias in your team, culture, or workplace, I suggest the following steps:

  1. Understand that unanimity around a complex problem is rare and is probably not a sign that you’ve identified the best solution. 
  2. When everyone quickly agrees on a solution to a complex issue, find someone who disagrees and bring them into the solution-creation process. Realize, however, that your culture might be making it hard for people who think differently to speak up. Humans like to fit in, and many people hesitate to risk articulating an idea that’s at odds with others. 

In today’s complex world, we all face complex problems — and we need cognitive diversity to find the solutions. To encourage diverse perspectives, your culture must be one where it’s safe to voice them. Helping organizations build such cultures is part of what we do. Let us know how we can help.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

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