Diversity and inclusion have long been key priorities for leaders in the workplace. However, there is a growing recognition that it’s not just demographic diversity that matters, but cognitive diversity as well. Cognitive diversity refers to the differences in perspectives, knowledge, and problem-solving approaches that individuals bring to a team. It’s been shown that teams with high levels of cognitive diversity are more innovative, make better decisions, and are better at solving complex problems.
Inclusive leadership is a style that emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Leaders who practice inclusivity value having a team with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, and they make an effort to create a welcoming and supportive environment for everyone on the team.
Diversity is beautiful — and powerful. Image created by Bing Create
Understanding cognitive diversity is vital for a company’s success. Embracing cognitive diversity leads to gathering more ideas and perspectives — which results in better solutions and better decision-making processes. In this article, you’ll discover specific tips that your organization can implement to ensure it’s providing an environment where everyone’s contributions are valued.
What You’ll Learn
- What cognitive diversity is and why it’s important.
- Why you need to put conscious effort into creating a diverse environment.
- Four strategies to drive cognitive diversity and to create a diverse team culture.
Whether you’re a seasoned leader or just starting out, this article will provide valuable insights for enhancing your team’s performance.
What Is Cognitive Diversity?
Cognitive diversity refers to the differences in how people think, reason, react to things and solve problems. Teams that only consider issues from one perspective leave themselves open to overlooking important factors in their decision-making process.
Every piece of the puzzle is important. Image created by Bing Create.
Scientific studies back up the importance of cognitive diversity as well. For example, Derreck Bonyuet’s dissertation on The Impact of Top Management Team Diversity on Firm Innovation found a strong correlation between diversity and innovation. He wrote that “companies seeking to innovate must be receptive to views and perspectives that can be generated from top management members of different cultures, tenure, educational background and political affiliation.”
Why Are People Cognitively Diverse?
Cognitive differences are the result of factors like personality, background, experiences and training. It’s interesting to discover how each person has a unique way of approaching problems, viewing the world and making decisions.
People’s personalities affect how they perform on a team, solve problems and handle issues. For example, some prefer to be more analytical and detail-oriented, while others are more creative and intuitive. Personality tests are useful tools for identifying differences in how people prefer to think.
In addition to personality, people’s backgrounds and experiences also contribute to their cognitive diversity. Individuals from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds bring unique perspectives and ideas to the table.
Finally, training and education also play a role in cognitive diversity. Individuals with varying areas of expertise and knowledge offer different insights and approaches to problem-solving.
Why Is Inclusive Leadership Important for You and Your Team?
Have you ever had a great idea but decided not to share it? We’ve all been there. Maybe you thought it wasn’t relevant, or you were afraid of how others might react. But what if sharing your idea could make a real difference? That’s where the concept of cognitive diversity comes in.
Keep an eye out for people who are uncomfortable speaking up. Image created by Bing Create.
Inclusive leadership helps you build a team where different perspectives are encouraged to speak up and share their thoughts. It’s important to recognize that what may seem irrelevant or unimportant to one person may be incredibly valuable to another. By valuing and leveraging cognitive diversity, we can unlock our full potential as individuals and as a team.
So, why is it important to put cognitive diversity on the agenda in the workplace? For starters, it makes work more enjoyable and challenging. When we’re exposed to new ideas and different ways of thinking, it keeps things fresh and exciting. It also allows us to learn and grow from each other’s perspectives. By seeing things through someone else’s eyes, we gain a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Another benefit of cognitive diversity is that it can lead to faster and better decision-making. When we have a variety of perspectives to draw from, we’re better equipped to make informed decisions that take into account multiple factors. This can lead to more creative solutions and better outcomes overall.
Examples of Inclusive Leadership Fails
There have been times when a lack of cognitive diversity caused significant damage to companies. For example, in the early 2000s, Blockbuster’s management team was made up of people with similar backgrounds. They failed to understand and react to the disruptive nature of Netflix’s business model until it was too late. A more cognitively diverse team might have been agile enough to survive Netflix’s encroachment on their business.
Similarly, the 1986 Challenger disaster was caused by an O-ring failure that engineers had pointed out to management. If management had been more open to the diverse perspectives of their team, that tragedy might have been avoided.
So, as a team leader, look out for people who might have an idea but who are hesitant to share it. By embracing everyone’s unique perspectives and experiences, you’ll create a more inclusive and effective workplace for everyone.
Why Isn’t Inclusive Leadership More Common?
Despite all of those advantages, many organizations don’t emphasize cognitive diversity. Why not?
As human beings, we naturally seek out similarities and stick to what is familiar to us. Inclusive leadership can be tiring and require more time and effort. It’s challenging to engage with people who have different ways of thinking. However, when we make an effort to embrace cognitive diversity, we can unlock its potential benefits.
Therefore, it’s important to remember that cognitive diversity doesn’t always happen naturally. It requires a conscious effort to seek out diverse perspectives and create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their unique viewpoints. By doing so, we can tap into the full potential of cognitive diversity and reap its many benefits.
Tools to Encourage Inclusive Leadership
Below are a few tools that you can use to ensure that you’re practicing inclusive leadership and embracing cognitive diversity in your teams.
The “Devil’s Advocate” Technique
One method to avoid blind spots in group discussions is to employ a bias-breaking technique called The Devil’s Advocate. This technique can help challenge the group’s consensus and encourage them to consider alternative perspectives.
When to Use It
Use the Devil’s Advocate technique whenever you and your colleagues need to make an important decision or when you suspect that there is too much agreement — meaning you haven’t considered enough alternative perspectives.
How to Implement It
- Randomly select someone in the meeting to act as the Devil’s Advocate. Make sure everyone knows the purpose of a Devil’s advocate and that your volunteer agrees to take on the role.
- The Devil’s Advocate constructively challenges group assumptions and agreements. Be sure to change the Devil’s Advocate from meeting to meeting.
Key Tasks of a Devil’s Advocate:
- Ask critical questions.
- Consider alternative perspectives.
- Pose hypothetical situations to clarify issues.
- Point out weak points in solutions.
- Call out hidden assumptions and biases.
The “Empty Chair” Technique
The Empty Chair Technique is a way of reminding the team to consider any missing perspectives from relevant people who are not present in the meeting.
When to Use It
You can use the empty chair technique in any meeting with two or more people. It involves leaving a chair empty to represent an absent participant. This can serve as a reminder to periodically ask yourself who hasn’t yet been heard from during the meeting.
How to Implement It
- Leave an actual chair empty during the meeting and ask your colleagues to suggest people who could be sitting in that chair. Think of customers, competitors or colleagues who could bring a fresh perspective to the meeting. For virtual meetings, you can imagine the empty chair.
- Next, discuss the perspectives that the hypothetical person in the empty chair would bring to the meeting if they were actually present.
This technique broadens your perspective and leads to more creative solutions.
The “HIPPO Last” Technique
The idea behind the HIPPO Last Technique is that the opinion of the highest-paid person should be shared last. This helps to avoid the expert halo effect and conformity bias. While it might be difficult to know who the highest-paid person in the room is, you could also consider the HIPPO to be the person with the highest rank or the longest time at the company, or just the most assertive person in the room.
When to Use It
This is a great tactic to use in any situation where you need to hear different voices and perspectives, from meetings to informal discussions. It’s especially helpful when you have people of different employee levels or perceived authority in the discussion.
How to Implement It
- If you are the HIPPO, take a moment to pause and hold back your ideas for just a bit to give everyone else a chance to share their thoughts – even if it means a little bit of awkward silence.
- On the other hand, if someone else is the HIPPO, it’s worth mentioning as the team lead that you’d really like to hear from everyone else first. That way, everyone has a chance to voice their opinion — and valuable ideas aren’t overlooked.
The “Pre-Mortem” Technique
To use the Pre-Mortem Technique, encourage everyone on the team to consider potential reasons a project might fail at a later stage, then use this input to take mitigating actions. This demonstrates due diligence and ensures better implementation.
When to Use It
The Pre-Mortem Technique is a great tactic to pull out during the planning phase of any project, regardless of its size.
How to Implement It
Before conducting the Pre-Mortem, explain the technique to your colleagues and ask them to consider the reasons why previous projects have failed. During the Pre-Mortem:
- Ask your colleagues to imagine a time in the near future when your project has catastrophically failed.
- Individually, write down as many causes as possible for this failure.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes. Use that time as a team to organize all the suggestions into clusters.
- As a team, prioritize the suggestions into those that can be parked, those that need attention and those that require immediate action.
With these four tactics, you can start seeing impressive results from your team. You might be surprised by the insights you get from people who hadn’t participated much in previous discussions.
Where to Go From Here?
Now that you know the importance of inclusive leadership and some specific tactics to embrace cognitive diversity in your team, it’s time to put your knowledge into action. Take what you’ve learned back to your team and ask the following questions:
- How well are we doing in fostering cognitive diversity currently?
- In which specific situations or decision/work processes could we improve?
Then, select an upcoming situation — a meeting, a product kick-off, etc. — and apply at least one of the techniques above to improve.
- Inclusive leadership values cognitive diversity, which can lead to better solutions and decision-making.
- Cognitive diversity doesn’t always happen naturally. It requires a conscious effort to seek out diverse perspectives.
- Use techniques such as the Devil’s Advocate, the Empty Chair, HIPPO Last, and Pre-Mortems to introduce cognitive diversity in teams.
Here are some additional resources related to inclusive leadership and cognitive diversity:
About the Author
Zahid is an experienced software engineer and technical manager with over 15 years in the field. He has a passion for trying out new technologies and writing about them. Originally from Pakistan, he now lives in Denmark and enjoys snow, photography and travel. He is always working to improve himself.
He went from being a manager of a development team to leading a development department in three years, and found that embracing cognitive diversity had a major impact on his team’s performance.