Inclusivity and diversity have both been prevalent topics of research and are therefore not a new tendency, however, it is concepts that many organisations struggle to implement. Getting diversity and inclusion right will be highly beneficial for organisations as research indicates that it can increase employee engagement, improve performance, and move the business towards higher profits. Recent research has focused more on cognitive diversity than the traditionally known diversity in terms of demographics. It is important to acknowledge that we are a culture rich and demographically diverse nation, but it is similarly important to realise that diversity is not limited to what we can see or how different we look to one another. In this article we will explore the definition of each of these concepts and how it affects employee engagement.

Diversity of thought or cognitive diversity as the name suggest, refers to how different people think in different ways. Even though cognitive diversity is a common concept, the attention it is getting is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many people are starting to realise the important role cognitive diversity plays within business and society. However, on the other hand the term itself is used so much and often in general and superficial ways that it risks becoming just another word to the corporate jargon. Fundamentally, the concept is about the differences people have and how these different people prefer to think.

Our preferences in the way we think can be classified into four clusters and can be seen as different “identities” of thinking. We each have access to these four clusters. All of these thinking identities are available to you, but some are more preferred and used than others. Therefore, if we talk about cognitive diversity, we refer to the diversity of thinking preferences. The Herrmann Whole brain model can be used to understand this concept. According to this model there are four quadrants of the brain that shows how thinking falls into four clusters. Each of these four clusters – analytical thinking, organised thinking, interpersonal- and strategic thinking – are important building block for a business to achieve its strategic objectives. Cognitive diversity is more tangible than we think, and it can be measured.

Cognitive diversity is something you already have within your organisation but having it does not mean that it is being successfully utilised. It is therefore essential that we understand what it is and that we create an inclusive environment to encourage people to use and practice diverse thinking. Keeping this in mind, it comes down to how we utilise it and encourage it, that makes the difference.

Inclusivity is the ability to engage diversity in an organisation so that everyone has equal opportunities to contribute. Inclusion creates a sense of belonging and engagement. Therefore, we cannot utilise cognitive or any type of diversity without inclusion.  As leaders we need to embrace the diverse workforce and encourage people to think differently. Recent research shows that there are four potential risks for over engagement and by embracing diversity and fostering an environment of inclusion we can limit these risks. The risks are:

Embracing the status quo: Although many studies show that people with positive mindsets tend to have more ideas, it was found that real innovation and change requires a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo. With regards to engagement, it is possible that proud and motivated people can resist new ways of doing things because change seems counterintuitive. If we encourage our people to think in a diverse way, it can create a habit and avoid this risk.

Pushing employees to burnout: When encouraged, it’s easy for highly engaged employees to become so involved in their job that they stop being concerned about other important parts of their lives. Studies have found that highly engaged workers tend to suffer work/family interference more often, and that people who fail to take down time can end up damaging their own health.

Giving an unfair advantage to certain personality types: Although few people acknowledge this, engagement is not just driven by situational factors: it is also the result of individuals’ personality. Our own research shows that employees who are naturally more optimistic, positive, emotionally stable, agreeable, and extraverted, tend to be more engaged – regardless of the circumstances. Hiring naturally happy people to (artificially) inflate engagement scores does not result in improved productivity or performance; but it does involve unfairly excluding people who are more pessimistic, introverted, demanding, or moody. By fostering a culture of inclusion, we can counter this risk and encourage different personalities to participate.

Undermining the benefits of negative thinking: Research show that positive mindsets bring openness and creativity, but on the other hand those with a more critical mindset can bring focus and attention. People who are put under moderate amounts of stress tend to become very focused and target-driven which can help to drive positive performance outcomes. Accordingly, research has found that people experiencing negative moods are often more persistent than those with a more positive mindset.

Although the concepts of diversity, inclusion and engagement are well researched, we need to understand the inter-relationships and effects it may have and how we can balance between these concepts to utilise it effectively.

By Zilmarie Carstens


Lewis Garraad and Tomas Chamorro-Premusic. (2016). The Dark Side of High Employee Engagement. Retrieved from

Rewardian. (2020). Diversity and Inclusion Can Boost Employee Engagement. Retrieved from

Herrmann International. (nd). Cognitive Diversity (or Diversity of Thought): It’s Not What You Think. Retrieved from

Anthony Paradiso. (2020). The Importance of Inclusion in the Workplace. Retrieved from

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