Cognitive diversity matters more now than ever before.
Granted, there's so much out there about workplace diversity that it either becomes jaded or confusing. Gender, age, cultural as well as race and ethnic diversity are relevant and hot topics of discussion. But they don't touch on cognitive diversity, and that's what we're talking about here.
What is cognitive diversity and why does it matter?
Cognitive diversity permeates and compliments every other kind of workplace diversity, but it's seldom discussed or considered. A simple definition of cognitive diversity is the variations in how individuals perceive and process information.
Across nationalities, cultures, genders and irrespective of age, we all view, absorb and process information differently. There are various theories around cognitive development, but all concur that it begins in early infancy. It's influenced by the infant's environment and people around them, and this continues throughout childhood.
What's forever hotly debated is whether there's a genetic link and why siblings, even twins, raised in the exact same way have different approaches to issues, trials and life in general.
How does cognitive diversity affect work performance?
There are many facets to cognitive diversity from a psychological standpoint. But in the workplace, the focus is on how people process and respond to change, challenges and new information or situations. There's no right or wrong response! The differentiator is where an employee gets placed within the process-chain.
You could have a brilliant networker and negotiator on your team, for example, who comes across as fairly average because they've been assigned to devising market strategies. Left there, their light will never shine, and you'll never know the talent that exists.
Identifying gender, age, cultural, race and ethnic diversity in hiring is relatively easy, but how do you hire for cognitive diversity? Read on!
How well do you know the thinking that drives your business?
Before we can figure anyone else out, we need to know who we are. Your company culture is the history and collective thinking of executive management that filters down and throughout. Leaders influence, and often dictate, the ideology of an organization.
If the wheels in your organization keep turning, there aren’t kinks to get straightened out, and orders routinely come in, you probably don’t think that cognitive diversity matters. That, however, is a clue that lack of cognitive diversity is keeping your business in the safe-zone where there’s stability but little growth.
That often happens when management decides to hire for cultural fit. It works well because everyone thinks, behaves and responds in the same way. No ruffled feathers and everything goes smoothly as one and all happily glide along the straight and narrow. But you’re likely still doing things the way they were done a decade ago, just with more tech.
Unconscious bias when hiring for cultural fit does not bode well for cognitive diversity.
Unfortunately, companies that are inclined to hire for cultural fit are also very open to conscious and unconscious bias in hiring processes. No matter how neutral, fair and transparent we believe we are as an employer (and as individuals), deeply ingrained prejudices sneak in. When everyone in the company is on the same page, it makes bias even more prevalent because the group doesn’t recognize their prejudices, or sees them as validated.
If a hiring team is intentionally looking to improve gender diversity, say, they will often still choose a like-minded candidate over one who was “quirky”. Even if the candidate that doesn’t fit the cultural mode is clearly better, the team will use their different-ness from the company norm as validation to exclude them. This decision can collectively get made without a doubt based on the fact that they won’t fit in.
But how well can you get to know the person behind a resume in an interview? Even a series of interviews gives you only a few hours with the candidate. You have no idea what their genuine contribution can be. Because overall thinking about hiring is typically one-track, no one can recognize parallels and opportunities. They only see the differences.
Introducing cognitive diversity into teams can be very challenging if leadership all think the same and believe that hiring the same types is pertinent to success.
Symptoms of lack of cognitive diversity
Often the need for change is driven by a new executive or board appointments. The introduction of new thinking and cognitive diversity in companies’ boards or executive teams will lead to questioning of culture. They’ll pick up on the symptoms of likeminded-stagnation very quickly.
Here are a few:
- A stable customer base that has little growth
- Limited or no product or services development
- Grooming “star” employees for promotion over time
- Authoritarian decision making and quashing innovation
- Abandoned or underperforming project implementation
- Long-term retention for individual employees who fit the mold
- A high turnover of new appointments who question systems
- No system of off-boarding or exit interviews
On the surface, it can appear that there’s nothing wrong with these points, but on closer analysis, it quickly becomes apparent that this type of management is self-defeating in today’s business scene.
Companies that don’t continually strive to improve their products and services stagnate and don’t attract new business. They appeal to a limited market that will ultimately begin to decline gradually.
While it’s great to promote from within, a policy of grooming people over time is indicative of handing over authority to those who carry out instructions without questioning unmined potential. These environments discourage innovation and creativity and squeeze out anyone who comes up with a good idea. Also, failing to find out why employees resign means that you never get wind of the fact that people get stifled. You can’t fix what you can’t recognize.
An example of a lack of cognitive diversity:
A typical example of this is Abercrombie & Fitch, an American lifestyle retailer that was established in 1982. They wowed the world with their unique brand identity and product lines. Soon they were an international must-have for trendy customers.
The problem was that they became comfortable in their success and didn’t change their winning formula for more than 35 years. They didn’t notice a change in consumer attitudes and choices. It took a hostile takeover and closure of over 40 stores globally to change the brand, which is now once again trading only in the USA.
Creativity and innovation have become essential
The global pandemic is challenging all business sectors in a way as never before. Even market leaders will feel the strain. Complacency and relying on continuing business as you were won’t get you far. Rebuilding and strategizing is going to rely on creativity, innovation and rapid problem-solving.
Leaders can’t afford to have teams passively look at them for the next instruction. They need to build confidence in their organizations by encouraging robust team participation in every aspect of problem-solving. That way, employees feel that they’re part of the solution.
If, however, you have teams who all think the same, you’ll make little progress. Their like-minded approach will lead to a lack of ideas. At this time, organizations need way-out ideas and off-the-wall thinking to breathe new life into their businesses.
It doesn’t mean that these ideas will work or will be adopted; their value is that they challenge the status quo. When we’re exposed to something we don’t necessarily agree with, we come up with something to counter it. As these different concepts get bounced around the room, the seed of something real can be planted. That’s how models and hypotheses get worked into real systems and prototypes.
If you’ve been hiring the same types of people who are prone to conformity and groupthink, does that mean that you have to bring in new hires?
Not necessarily! But do take the lesson and include hiring for cognitive diversity in future recruitment processes. It’s best to start adapting your talent acquisition strategies now to meet your prospective needs because the future of work is changing.
We can’t easily figure out what makes someone tick
It’s not easy to recognize cognitive thinking even when you work closely with someone. So how do you identify it? Today we have advanced people analytics platforms like F4S to make this easy and measurable. Even with the right tools, though, you can miss the mark if you don’t know what you’re looking for in teams.
Before you even think of hiring or restructuring teams, know what challenges your company is facing in the immediate and medium-term. It’s also essential to understand what will most likely resolve issues quickly and where innovation is necessary. Then identify attitudes and motivations that are likely to help move projects in the right direction, and hire for those.
Here are some other tips:
- Get your teams together and honestly throw the problems and challenges onto the table.
- Ask for ideas and reassure employees that every suggestion will get heard and that no idea will be ridiculed. Knowing that everyone is in a safe space and on equal ground will allow people to open up.
- Once everyone fully understands what the company’s facing, arrange for a brainstorming meeting in a day or two so that employees can contribute potential solutions.
- Encourage active participation and note who steps up with ideas outside of their current area of responsibility.
How does cognitive diversity affect problem-solving?
In effect, cognitive diversity is the diversity of thought.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario:
During your brainstorming session, someone comes up with the idea of online chat support to take the pressure of handling inbound call enquiries off marketing and sales. It’s a great idea, but that means a new hire and product training. Also, you’ve never done it before, and you’re not sure if it’s a full-time job. Your IT guys can get it implemented quickly enough, but who will handle the online enquiries?
Your accounts payable assistant raises her hand “I’d love to do that!” Your immediate thoughts are “Jo has been quietly getting on with her job for a few years now, but can she interact with customers?”
Let’s consider what’s required from someone who runs online chat support very well? Quick response, understanding the enquiry, attention to detail, emotional intelligence and follow through to the end. Those aren’t stereotypical traits of salespeople who should be hunting for new business, maintaining existing customers, verifying stock levels, seeing that orders are met on time and calculating best prices.
As an accounts payable assistant, Jo already knows all of your products. Working in finance, she has excellent attention to detail, and she resolves queries. She also follows through to ensure that all suppliers get paid on time. In F4S terms, you’d likely want someone high on “Compliance”, “Hearing”, “Reflection & Patience” and in the medium range “Alternatives”. We call these motivations.
In the 30-minutes it takes to complete an F4S questionnaire, you can identify an excellent internal candidate to run your online chat support. Without considering cognitive diversity, you would never know that you already have someone on your team who can increase sales, promote your products and brand, and improve customer engagement. (And you’ve been keeping her hidden in the corner of the finance department.)
Cognitive diversity isn’t something that many employers are aware of, but it’s crucial to business success in a rapidly evolving world. By hiring for variety in thinking rather than cultural fit, you give your organization the best chance of growth through innovation.
Improving cognitive diversity in companies’ boards is the ultimate prize! Since culture tends to filter from the top downwards, having a diverse group of thinkers leading an organization sets you on a winning path. That does mean, however, that they won’t always see eye-to-eye, but when handled well what seems like negatives can easily be converted to positive leadership.
Here are some steps that you can take to introduce cognitive diversity into teams and your company as a whole:
- Empower employees by encouraging the sharing of ideas without the fear of rejection or ridicule
- Boost a sense of job-ownership by considering ideas and rewarding employees for concepts that are accepted and implemented
- Openly embrace thought diversity as part of your company culture and strongly discourage the formation of cliques (and break them up quickly)
- Write hiring for cognitive diversity into your recruitment policies and procedures
- Ensure that all leadership become active ambassadors of the inclusion of cognitive diversity, not just in word but in their actions as well
Not all companies, particularly startups, have depth in their HR department and hiring decisions are led by hiring managers or the CEO. Hiring for diversity and inclusion is essential if your business is going to become competitive and remain relevant.