Workplaces have put a lot of emphasis on diversity over the past several years, and rightfully so. However, as we consider all elements of diversity, one that is often not celebrated is cognitive diversity. What is cognitive diversity, you ask? Cognitive diversity is the diversity of thought and opinion, more specifically defined as including “a variety of thinking, problem-solving, and creative perspectives” (Stanford GSB).
Cognitive diversity is particularly valuable in the workplace, though many managers may be silently fearful of the results it might produce. While teams and workplaces will greatly benefit from a variety of perspectives when making important decisions, behavioral scientist Francesca Gino points out that “research shows that people tend to prefer working with others who think like them and share similar values” (LinkedIn). Unfortunately, this leads to a common problem within teams: groupthink.
The Problem with Groupthink
Let’s face it. Groupthink is comfortable. We might not even realize we’re participating in it when it’s happening. Groupthink is the “phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible” (Psychology Today). It is comfortable because it is often easier to conform than to dissent. Dissent requires a level of courage that many employees might not have, especially if that level of bravery is not encouraged or modeled by leadership. This is evidenced across industries, from politics to science, and is often – intentionally or unintentionally – the result of a culture fostered by leadership. According to Northwestern University, “examples of groupthink can be found in historic events such as the U.S. Invasion of Iraq, Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster and the Enron-Arthur Anderson scandal. (Thompson, 2008) In each of these examples, leadership style played a key role in enhancing groupthink conditions.”
In many cases, we trust that leadership has the best interests of the company in mind. In turn, we trust that their ideas are likely the best. However, when the ideas of leadership remain unchallenged, we lose the prospect of innovation at best, and at worst, we make decisions that are harmful.
Understanding Cognitive Diversity
Cognitive diversity in the workplace is the antidote to groupthink. When teams are collaborating and trying to solve problems, groupthink will result in a similar line of thinking, and thus, similar outcomes. It produces little disagreement, and in many cases, reduces innovation. Alternatively, cognitive diversity will produce varying ideas and perspectives, often causing disagreement, but resulting in new ideas or ways of doing things. Interestingly, cognitive diversity is not always predicted by obvious external characteristics. According to HBR, “someone being from a different culture or different generation gives no clue as to how that person might process information, engage with, or respond to change.” When it comes to cognitive diversity, we need to think beyond just cultural and socioeconomic differences and begin to consider how certain types of people react to, process, and execute on information.
When making a big decision, developing a new product, or a new process, cognitive diversity is a critical factor for success. Consider hosting brainstorming sessions and promoting diversity of opinion. Perhaps invite people from different areas of the business or even different career levels to influence decision-making. The difference in perspective can be hugely beneficial to innovating and creating.
Strategies for Fostering Cognitive Diversity
Cognitive Diversity rarely happens naturally – it must be fostered, encouraged, and deliberate. In fact, the focus on building culture and promoting teamwork can often unintentionally stifle cognitive diversity. As shared by HBR, “When we have a strong, homogeneous culture (e.g., an engineering culture, an operational culture, or a relational culture), we stifle the natural cognitive diversity in groups through pressure to conform. We may not even be aware that it’s happening.” Thus, leaders play a hugely important role in promoting cognitive diversity. Leaders must ensure the psychological safety of their teams to encourage the sharing of divergent perspectives. Leaders must give credence to the importance of differing opinions, explaining that innovative teams are not teams who agree on everything, but teams who respectfully challenge one another. Company leadership and HR teams should consider implementing recruitment strategies that identify cognitive diversity, and provide training to leaders on how to both encourage and harness it. Finally, when divergent opinions are bravely shared, celebrate those who offer those opinions. Better yet, when a successful outcome is achieved after a cognitively diverse discussion, share it broadly as an example.
We can support your teams in achieving cognitive diversity. Behavioral Scientist Francesca Gino can lead your team on two comprehensive journeys focused on resilience and communication. Each of these journeys will teach teams how to thrive during times of change and disagreement, promoting diversity of thought and collaboration. Book your journey today!