Workplace diversity is often generally associated with demographic diversity, or the inclusion of employees from various socio-cultural backgrounds. In recent years, however, ensuring diversity of thought (or cognitive diversity) has become increasingly important as well.
According to a recent study published in The Harvard Business Review, teams that have more differences in perspective and information-processing styles tend to perform better. Because of their cognitive differences, they were much more adept and rapid at problem-solving than teams that were more cognitively homogenous.
Crucially, cognitive diversity is an essential condition for innovation. Innovativeness necessitates thinking out of the box and being unconventional; cognitively diverse teams are in a much better position for this precisely because of their differences in thinking styles.
So, greater cognitive diversity promotes better team problem-solving, more innovation, and higher performance. The trouble is that workplace dynamics often reward conformity and penalise difference. As a supervisor, you need to encourage your people to come into their own and turn cognitive diversity into a weapon; here’s how.
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The most critical ingredient for high-performing teams in any situation is psychological safety. People need to know that they’re allowed to themselves; they have to feel comfortable expressing differences without fear of being judged, ridiculed, or condescended to for it.
Psychologically safe teams don’t hold back from one another; dissenting and supportive opinions are equally welcome, as is positive and negative feedback. They do not treat differences as crippling. Instead, they embrace it. Ergo, cognitive diversity is likelier to be more salient in psychologically safe teams. (Read this to learn more about how leaders can provide psychological safety at work.)
Biases are a colossal hindrance to diversity. We are often naturally more partial to those who think and see things the same way we do. This can send a clear message against cognitive diversity in teams.
Before you can prevent your team from conforming to the same thinking styles, though, you need to confront your own biases. The same HBR study mentioned earlier found that managers showed a high degree of diversity of thought when they were asked to assess themselves. However, when their direct reports assessed them, they showed a much more considerable amount of conformity in thought.
In other words, leaders themselves are guilty of censoring their own thinking styles at work. If you hope to discourage your people from doing the same, you need first to confront your own biases.
People might be highly reluctant to express differences right from the outset. In group settings, they may initially prefer to stick to the status quo and play it safe at work instead of daring to be different. In fact, they may not see the value that their specific thinking style can bring to the team.
Introverts and extroverts, for example, generally have different thinking styles. Introverts, however, tend to self-censor much more than extroverts, although both thinking styles are essential in different contexts. In this case, if you don’t know your people well enough, you won’t be able to help them come into their own.
To support the true expression of cognitive diversity, leaders need to start with building strong personal relationships with each team member. You need to understand them as people to understand what makes them different in the first place.
More specifically, you need to know:
The tricky thing about diversity of thought is that it is easily overlooked. People who aren’t willing to express their differences often cover themselves up well or simply not say anything. If leaders aren’t paying attention to their surroundings and their people, it’s easy for this to go unnoticed.
If you want to encourage cognitive diversity, you need to help people express themselves without making them unnecessarily uncomfortable. This requires excellent empathy skills as well as active listening; you have to hear what’s being said as well as what’s not being said. In fact, if you don’t know your people well enough, you won’t know what to pay attention to in the first place, or how best to help push them out of their comfort zones.