In terms of South Africa’s Employment Equity Act, affirmative action includes “making reasonable accommodation for people from designated groups in order to ensure that they enjoy equal opportunities and are equitably represented” (EEA, 2013). This article’s intention is not to question these processes and the thinking behind them, but it is unfortunate that the legislative context hampers the true meaning of diversity.  In this context, diversity is believed to be limited to race and gender, whereas an inclusive workforce means much more.

Diversity can be divided into two types: inherent and acquired. Inherent diversity refers to traits you are born with, such as gender and ethnicity. Acquired diversity focuses on traits you gain from experience. South Africa’s affirmative action plan aims at addressing inherent diversity.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis report some fascinating findings. Reynolds and Lewis studied how well executive teams could complete a strategic execution task under time pressure. They discovered that the kinds of diversity we most commonly think of — gender, race, age — had no correlation to a team’s results. What did have a correlation, was the diversity of thinking.

This type of diversity focuses on the inclusion of people who have different styles of processing knowledge and solving problems. Each human being has a unique blend of identities, cultures, and experiences that inform how he or she thinks, interprets, negotiates, and accomplishes a task.

We all think differently and there is no one way of thinking that has been agreed upon as correct. What is agreed however, is that the way we think governs the way we work. Research shows that, while we are all capable of thinking in various ways, most people have a preferred way of approaching and solving problems.

An American psychologist Robert Sternberg, in 1985, developed the Triarchic Model of Intelligence which encompasses three different types of intelligence: analytical, creative and practical. When applying this to a team at work solving a problem, the most effective combination is to have at least one person who is logical; at least one person who sees things from a different or unusual perspective; and one who is knowledgeable about the processes involved. Thus, having a homogenous thinking team, is not the most effective. Understanding your preferred style and the style of others in the team increases the likelihood of effective problem-solving.

There are various ways of classifying and looking at thinking styles, for example Dr Judy Chartrand in 2013 went on to describe seven different thinking styles: Analytical, Inquisitive, Insightful, Open-Minded, Systematic, Timely, and Truth-seeking. There is agreement that thinking styles vary across individuals. According to a study by Deloitte, cultivating “diversity of thought” at your business can boost innovation and creative problem-solving and guard against the phenomenon of GroupThink.

To increase diversity of thought among your workforce, the following needs to occur:

  1. Hire differently: The job description and interview process should contain competencies and questions designed to help identify and select a cognitively diverse organisation. A good way of ascertaining different thinking styles is to request the potential employee to complete a work sample or solve a small problem before selection.
  2. Manage differently: Instead of seeking consensus, managers should encourage task-focused conflict that can push their teams to new levels of creativity and productivity. The aim is to foster an environment where all feel comfortable sharing their views and their authentic selves.
  3. Promote differently: Moving towards more of a team-based performance evaluation framework can allow an organisation to create and foster a culture of inclusion that empowers its people, encourages collaboration and inspires more innovation.


Canaday, S. (2017). Cognitive diversity. Retrieved from
Caroselli, M. (2013). Diversity applied to thinking styles. Retrieved from
Chartrand, J. (2013). How do you think? Retrieved from
Diaz-Uda, A., Medina, C., & Schill, B. (2013). Diversity of thought and the future of the workforce. Deloitte University Press. Retrieved from
Hall, K. (2015). Acquired and inherent diversity – which is most valuable to you. Retrieved from
Republic of South Africa. (2013). Employment Equity Act, No. 47 of 2013. Government Gazette. Pretoria: Government Printer.


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