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Team Effectiveness

The Newest Type of Diversity Your Team Needs is Cognitive Diversity


We know that research shows diversity on teams has a real impact on financial performance. But is your team taking advantage of its cognitive diversity?

What is Cognitive Diversity?

Cognitive diversity is a new perspective on a familiar topic. It’s an often overlooked aspect of diversity. Cognitive diversity is about cultivating and embracing a team with a difference in perspectives and information processing styles. Team members that are cognitively diverse have a unique advantage when working through problems, approaching change, processing information, and performing in complex situations.


What’s the Benefit of Cognitive Diversity?

A cognitively diverse team responds to change, challenges, or opportunities with disparate solutions, instead of homogeneous ones. Instead of approaching a task with the mindset of “how we always do things”, the team has an eye toward innovation and challenging processes because their unique viewpoints enable them to approach problems with the benefit of multiple angles.

To illustrate the benefits of a team that thinks differently, Harvard Business Review researchers ran studies based off of earlier research showing how higher cognitive diversity correlates with better performance.

They looked at how the twin factors of Knowledge Processing – whether individuals deployed existing knowledge or generated new knowledge – and Perspective – the extent to which people relied on their own expertise or encouraged the ideas of others – impacted the time taken to solve a challenge.

The result? The more similar a team was in their knowledge processing or perspective, the higher the rate of failure.


Is your team cognitively diverse?

It’s important to realize that the recruiting process may lead to a functional bias toward uniform thinking styles. It is common to hire those who we observe thinking and expressing themselves similarly, or someone you think will thrive in your organizational culture. Even if your team members are diverse culturally, their thinking styles may not be. Think of it as a type of “invisible diversity.”

It takes hard work to mine for differences in how people react to change and it can be tempting to treat someone’s discomfort or misgivings as problematic, or to not question the status quo when seeking a swift resolution to a business challenge or operation.

Here are a few ways I’ve been experimenting with encouraging and discovering my team’s cognitive diversity. These have also given us an idea of where we need to look outside of our own perspective to innovate. I’ve also found that using a tool like Everything DiSC® gives me great insight on my team’s preferences and style of how we like to be approached and communicated with.

  • Don’t rush. Give your team time to make sense of new information and ask them how they would like to receive it. If you sense confusion or pushback, ask for feedback or clarification on what the actual challenge is.
  • Clarify the goal. When faced with a problem, new challenge, or task, be sure to ask what will the goal look like and what are the perceived risks? What is our process, what are the milestones, is everyone on board, and do we know what the goal or task actually is? (You’d be surprised how many different versions you might come up with – don’t be tempted to quash someone’s idea because they didn’t see it the way you did.)
  • Check in, check in, check in. Gauge how your team is responding to unfamiliar situations, ambiguity, or uncertain outcomes. In a rapidly changing workplace, it is more common to shift and adjust than to have a clear path. This can both be highly unsettling and extremely rewarding but encourage your team to express their discomfort instead of just playing along – it could lead to an innovation
  • Don’t be the 'fix it friend'. Encouraging your team to express how they approach changes and challenges actually encourages different ways of thinking. It requires overcoming that uncomfortable feeling of not always having the answers, or the temptation to pull back a project when the discovery process creates more questions. When your team isn’t aligning on a project, lean in and report out. Get to the bottom of the discomfort, but stick to the goal.

Understanding and benefiting from cognitive diversity on your team starts by examining difference without judgement and being self-aware. Whether cognitively diverse or not, teams are made up of individuals who react differently during conflict. The Everything DiSC® Productive Conflict assessment can be used with everyone in your organization, but is optimal for teams, and is designed to help curb destructive reactions that can get in the way of productive relationships, and help team members become less reactive and more effective.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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Lauren Parkhill

Lauren Parkhill leads the marketing team in creating creative content that helps organizations develop their leaders and teams.