Diversity management or cognitive diversity management?

Diversity management is synonymous with support, inclusivity, acknowledgement, equality, and acceptance. Traditionally diversity management emerged to create an everlasting positive impact and influence on each valuable link of the Human Resource chain of processes.

The first thing the majority of people think about when they hear diversity management is the differences that are visible to the naked eye like race, gender, age, and culture (identity diversity). We do not often think of diversity in terms of different ideas and thoughts and perspectives and the knowledge one possesses. This is because our brains love creating shortcuts to make sense of the thousands of stimuli that we are exposed to on a daily basis.

Have you ever heard of the term “Great minds think alike”? This sounds wonderful because who likes it when someone challenges them?

This is natural as we are drawn to individuals that are like us. Our minds go into autopilot because it is easier to be around people who do not challenge our thoughts and perspectives. Think about it, we usually hang around colleagues that have a similar opinion to us because it does not challenge the way we think or create ideas. This in turn switches off our creative buttons and does not allow for knowledge and ideas to be effectively stimulated within a team.

Although it is natural, it does not mean that it is right. Seeking what is similar blinds us to the potential magic we can create when we invite and acknowledge individuals that bring something new to the table.

Why is it necessary to rewire our brains to look internally?

Alison Reynolds and David Lewis made a valid point in the Harvard Business Review: “Colleagues gravitate towards the people who think and express themselves in a similar way. As a result, organisations often end up with like-minded teams”.

But is this enough? Having like-minded teams may enhance collaboration and cohesion due to similarity but what does that do to the creativity and innovation that needs to be harnessed to remain relevant in today’s society?

This brings us to the concept of cognitive diversity. What is cognitive diversity?

Cognitive diversity (also known as diversity of thought) is a concept that looks at the uniqueness we as individuals bring to the table, who we are on the inside. This includes the way we have been raised, our personalities, the way we think, interpret, and process information, and solve problems.

Here are the three things you need to know to understand cognitive diversity. It is the way in which we:

  • Make sense of novel information. Basically, it is the way in which we absorb and process the information around us.
  • Tackle and solve problems. This includes the way in which we design solutions, obtain, and explore evidence, make decisions, and manage risk in our environment.
  • React to unfamiliar situations that occur around us. This speaks to how we develop the confidence to proceed when we are faced with ambiguity.

You might ask why embracing and bringing forward cognitive diversity is highly important in creating an effective and highly functioning team?

A recent study reveals that cognitive diversity may be more important to team performance than the other factors that differentiate groups (e.g. race, gender, culture). However, other prominent and recognised researchers believe that cognitive diversity and identity diversity are best friends that are most effective when implemented in unison.

This is because when all diversity is taken into account it produces the best thinking in a group and reduces biases and groupthink that disable teams from progressing forward with innovative and up-to-scratch solutions.

Additionally, a Deloitte report stated that innovation is enhanced by 20% and identifying and reducing risks decline by 30% when your team is cognitively and demographically different.

Cognitive diversity has been implemented by renowned companies like IBM. IBM decided that they wanted to embrace neurodiversity by hiring individuals who are highly functioning with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Going that extra mile and valuing cognitive diversity in your team is what sets you apart from companies that do not wish to enhance and respect the mental capacity of their team.

The 5 Thinking styles- how to utilise them to enhance team understanding and acceptance

The 5 thinking styles were created by Robert Bramson. The idea around the 5 thinking styles was to be able to categorise our different styles of thinking and problem-solving techniques we use on a frequent basis.

  1. Synthesist Thinkers: These thinkers are extremely curious and innovative. They are likely to make interesting connections between different things. They may come across as argumentative, however this could be due to them analysing every avenue and connecting ideas together. TIP: If you identify as the synthesist thinker in your team, you can create harmony amongst your team by acknowledging the value of your teammate’s ides.
  2. Idealist Thinkers: These thinkers are often characterised by setting Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) and set relatively high standards for themselves and others. Their approach may come across as perfectionistic to others as they are constantly trying to achieve goals that may seem unrealistic. They tend to take a holistic and all-rounded view of things which allows them to be future orientated. When they work in a team, they often create cohesion and love to assist others to achieve their best. TIP: It can be difficult to work in a team that does not set high standards that you pride yourself on. It is important to remember that not everyone has the same standards that you do. This may be frustrating; however, we are not all compelled to achieve those BHAGs.
  3. Pragmatist Thinkers: These thinkers are action orientated. They enjoy solving problems in a logical and methodological manner. They are the doers, the individuals that like getting things done in the team. These thinkers may not be too concerned about the bigger picture or the causation of things. TIP: Although your “get things done” mindset is great for team task execution; you may want to occasionally stop and think about the bigger picture. This will allow you to make sense of why you are actioning something and that you are on the right track. When you sit back you can gain some perspective on where your actions fit into the grander scheme of things.
  4. Analyst Thinkers: These thinkers enjoy working with measurable facts in a logical and methodical manner. Anything that requires working with facts, data, measuring and categorising is their forte. Analysts solve problems by using a method or a formula as they prefer the predictability and rationality behind problems. TIP: If you are an analyst, you are likely to be accurate and thorough, and this may make you dismiss team members who are not as detail specific as you are. When this happens, remember that we all work differently and may not all be detail specific. Use this as an opportunity to help without making the other person feel that their work is not valuable.
  5. Realist Thinkers: These thinkers are your problem solvers- the fixers. They thoroughly enjoy tackling a problem in a quick but efficient manner. The excitement of a challenge springs them into action. However, they may find themselves feeling bored if they are given mundane issues to solve. They are excited and energised by sinking their teeth into big and complex problems. TIP: It is easy to be carried away with the first solution that comes to mind. It would be wise to pause ever so often to reassess information and the situation to see if you can find a more efficient way of solving a problem.

How do different thinking styles influence the way your team solves problems?

In simple terms, nonhomogeneous teams are smarter. There is something magical about working in a team that challenges your ways of thinking which often leads to sharpened performance and the generation of well-rounded ideas.

When individuals are surrounded by people that are different to them, they are more likely to become keenly aware of the potential blind biases that creep up when working together. The blind leading the blind leads to someone bumping into something. When we take those blind folds off, we are more likely to make fewer errors when solving problems as well as remain more objective and focus on equity driven making decisions.

Why are diverse teams smarter you may ask?

  1. They are more inclined to focus on the facts: Diverse individuals that are grouped together enhance and promote more accurate group thinking. Groupthink is the negative affect of being in homogeneous groups which often negatively alters biases and subjectivity.
  2. They are able to process facts more carefully: Research suggests that when someone of a diverse background is placed into a group with similar individuals, the diverse individual is able to improve the joint decision making of the team.
  3. They are inclined to be more innovative: Do not be fooled by the comfort you experience when placed in a group with individuals that look and think in the same way that you do. This not only stunts your ability to create innovative and out-of-the-box ideas but also puts a blind fold over your head that disallows and discourages you from thinking in a nonconforming manner.

Harvard Business Review conducted research over a 12-year period which aimed to solidify the importance of diversity in problem solving. What the research suggested is that demographically diverse teams’ performance was not as consistent as expected.  Some teams fared exceptionally well in solving problems while others fared much more unfavourably.

This significant finding allowed research to be more focused on cognitive diversity and its importance in the performance of a team. They created an exercise called the AEM cube which measured cognitive diversity and its impact on performance. The results suggest that the higher a team’s cognitive diversity, the higher the team’s performance.

Leaders that are aware of the way in which each individual in their team processes information and applies their knowledge, the more likely they are to have an increased team performance due to the different types of thinking styles they possess.

Practical tips to cultivate a team rich in cognitive diversity

The great thing is that we all have cognitive diversity in our team. It is just a matter of using specific techniques to enhance and nurture the cognitive diversity in your team.

Self-awareness as a leader is vitally important to elicit the full potential of your team’s cognitive abilities. This brings us to the first step:

  1. Leaders must become aware of their own cognitive preferences: You can do this by asking yourself these 3 questions:

When new information is presented to you, what do you prefer to do?

  • Get stuck into the details, then search for patterns
  • Look for themes and patterns, then get into the nitty gritty of the data to the degree necessary

When you are solving a problem, what do you prefer to focus most of your time and attention on?

  • Looking through evidence
  • Creating different options
  • Being in charge of managing the process
  • Being the one that decides which option is best to pursue
  • Trying to mitigate the risks

When you are faced with a novel situation, what do you instinctively do?

  • Use past experiences or models or,
  • Create new and different solutions for the situation
  1. Become aware of where you may be shutting down some of your team members: This requires reflection on your side. Think back to the way that you interact with your team and identify areas where you think you should work on. It may be as simple as maybe you get impatient when your team does not perform to the standard you expected.
  2. Create strategies that can be used to channel your teams cognitive diversity: This entails becoming aware of your teams thinking styles and implementing a feedback session where you discuss the pros, cons and ways forward when dealing with each other’s thought processes. Be more aware of your teams different processing preferences and allow individuals to perform in fields that enhance and compliment their thinking styles.

We are often scared to reach out of our comfort zones. But at what cost does this have on our team’s performance and innovation? Unlocking your team’s cognitive ability may be a task not many leaders are willing to face. It’s almost like looking directly into the sun, your eyes struggle to adjust at first but once they do you will realise all the beauty you were missing out on because you were too afraid to look at it.


Forbes. (2017). The Truth About Diversity—And Why It Matters. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/shelleyzalis/2017/11/30/the-truth-about-diversity-and-why-it-matters/#2b03023066e7

Forbes. (2018). 3 Steps To Harnessing The Cognitive Diversity Of Your Team-Starting Today. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/harmoncullinan/2018/03/29/3-steps-to-harnessing-the-cognitive-diversity-of-your-team-starting-today/#71556da765db

Forbes. (2018). Diversity And Inclusion Matters To The Workforce Of The Future. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2018/05/09/diversity-and-inclusion-matters-to-the-workforce-of-the-future/#632f995b771b

Forbes. (2018). The Benefits Of Cognitive Diversity. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/11/26/the-benefits-of-cognitive-diversity/#509d5d1c5f8b

Gotham Culture. (2017). 3 Powerful Ways To Improve Diversity Of Thought On Your Team. Retrieved from https://gothamculture.com/2017/08/07/3-powerful-ways-improve-diversity-thought-team/

Harvard Business Review. (2016). Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter

Harvard Business Review. (2017). Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/03/teams-solve-problems-faster-when-theyre-more-cognitively-diverse

HR Technology. (2020). Great Minds Think Differently: How to Enable Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace. Retrieved from https://www.hrtechnologist.com/articles/diversity/how-to-enable-cognitive-diversity-in-the-workplace/

Learning Mind. (2017). How Understanding the Five Thinking Styles Can Improve Your Changes of Success. Retrieved from https://www.learning-mind.com/five-thinking-styles/

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