Groupthink. Not Invented Here syndrome. Filter bubbles and echo chambers. Confirmation bias. Call it what you will, it all boils down to the same thing – intellectual tunnel vision which encourages like-minded people to look for, recall and interpret information in a way that reinforces what they already believe.
It affects who we work with as well as how we work because it’s psychologically more comfortable to work with people who think like we do and hold similar views. Unfortunately, it’s also very bad for business because it means we have the same blind spots too!
Whilst a recent emphasis on gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity, particularly within executive teams and boardrooms, has significantly improved the balance of view in decision making a growing body of research suggests conventional diversity isn’t the complete story. As highlighted by Alison Reynolds and David Lewis in their HBR article “Teams solve problems faster when they’re more cognitively diverse” what really matters is cognitive diversity – teams that think differently.
The members of cognitively diverse teams differ in how they approach problems and process information and, as a result, generate a wider range of potential solutions. People approach problems, discussions, other people (and life!) in very different ways, depending on personality and psychological preferences. Some people are Big Picture thinkers always considering “How might we…?”. Others might be Down-to-Earth, focusing on the evidence more than the idea, or Discipline-Driven, planning with purpose and structure. This diversity matters when you’re faced with new, uncertain and complex situations – like trying to compete in today’s business environment.
So, what can you do if you want to create cognitively diverse teams?
To start with, as a leader you must fervently believe you don’t have all the answers and the best approach is to consider and value other opinions. Your leadership team and their reports must also hold this as a core belief. Once you have ticked both of those boxes, I believe there are a number of concrete steps you can take, starting with understanding how the organisation thinks now.
Understanding your current cognitive diversity and culture
To harness the potential of cognitive diversity, you’ll need to review, and probably make changes to your company culture. Your culture is described by the experiences colleagues and customers have when they interact with you. You as a leader set the culture and whatever your preferred problem-solving approach (directive, leading through people, inspiration driven, or any other blend), the research – and our experience – suggests you will be more successful if you embrace cognitive diversity, rather than expecting everyone else to adopt your style.
Strong homogeneous cultures can stifle cognitive diversity by generating a high pressure to conform. Whilst we fully endorse the need for everyone to have a shared set of values and a shared sense of purpose, you also want your employees to have the confidence to speak up when they think they have a better answer. As you investigate how people prefer to think you may well find a few surprises along the way. For example, if you espouse a culture of innovation but have a prevalent cognitive style of low risk, proven method, “safe” decision making (often prevalent in highly regulated industries) then your cultural ambition of innovation may have real challenges ahead.
Redesign your recruitment process
The study by Alison Reynolds and David Lewis mentioned above, showed hiring for diversity of age, gender and ethnicity doesn’t necessarily give you cognitive diversity – you must design your recruitment processes to specifically look for it.
Why? Because you need to mitigate the fact that interviewers are most attracted to candidates who remind them of themselves. Think about it. When you last interviewed a candidate what made you feel comfortable with them? Likely it had a lot to do with similarities in the way they saw the world, you felt them easy to get along with or built rapport quickly.
Recently, we helped a client map their organisation’s problem-solving preferences. We found a significant majority of employees used one or other of just two cognitive styles and they were unconsciously recruiting for these styles because that was what they were comfortable with. We built tools into their recruitment process to help them recognise cognitive diversity and actively hire for it. Not as a blunt instrument to pre-select candidates, but as part of the overall recruitment process that helped them understand the broader picture of a candidate’s capabilities.
Create a psychologically safe environment
Finally, you will need to create a psychologically safe working environment; one in which people are comfortable challenging received wisdom and experimenting with new ways of doing things without fear of retribution or humiliation.
When you replace blame with curiosity, mistakes and failures become opportunities to learn and improve. As Paul Santagata, Google’s Head of Industry, puts it, “There’s no team without trust.” However, it takes time and effort to build this kind of environment. Trust can be shattered with an ill-timed “tut”, a reflex sigh, or a rolling of the eyes in a meeting. As well as ensuring everyone practices the necessary positive behaviours, you must get rid of the negative ones too.
Working as part of a cognitively diverse team will feel uncomfortable at first because we’re not naturally at ease with people who think differently to us. It might also feel slower because you’ll need to process a wider range of views. Patience is essential.
The consensus of opinion is clear though – not only is this an investment worth making, it’s fast becoming an imperative. The more I work with great leaders, the more I observe people who are “comfortable being uncomfortable” and I believe working with this ambiguity and embracing cognitive diversity is perhaps a defining quality for 21st Century leadership.
Here at Changemaker, we support organisations and individuals in delivering sustainable and lasting change. When creating high performing teams and organisations, we work with the human being, helping leaders and teams understand how they see the world and each other. We encourage diversity and help organisations to understand and develop the power of thinking differently using industry leading psychometric tools to support team building, recruitment and leadership development. If you want to learn more about us, take a look at our website (www.changemaker.org.uk) or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.