Promoting Cognitive Diversity In Organisations

Promoting Cognitive Diversity In Organisations

Organisations are coming to the realisation that urging ahead successfully could sometimes mean going beyond and bringing in an outsider with a fresh perspective, new ideas and the ability to provide solutions.


Diversity is a critical ingredient for creativity, innovation and driving performance in organisations. Usually, the most visible forms of diversity witnessed is in terms of gender, age, education, race, religion, and demography. Cognitive diversity supersedes all of these and is said to be prevalent when employees from different backgrounds, experiences, cultures, possessing different personalities, tend to think differently, have different perspectives, and come up with diverse ways to solve problems.


It is pertinent for organisations to work towards such cognitive diversity since we are operating in the VUCA world. When the environment is so dynamic, one needs to be adept at shifting gears at the slightest indication and that is possible when teams are trained for analytical and diverse thinking.


Even cohesive teams with only a visible form of diversity can remain homogeneous in their approach if there is no cognitive diversity. Ideas and thoughts contributed by such teams are more predictable than innovative. To successfully surge ahead, organisations need to leverage collective intelligence, and hence, cognitive diversity helps to generate new ideas, identify innovative solutions, and get more creative in performing tasks. However, developing cognitive diversity is not as simple as adopting other forms of visible diversity, and hence, there arises the need to look at unconscious biases that may seep in to act as a roadblock.


Recognise Homophily during recruitment


Candidates with similar experience or those who have worked in the same sector would be preferred – How often do we come across job advertisements like this? The prerequisite of same sector experience is a required attribute in domain-related roles, but not necessarily for managerial, leadership or support functions. Also, an ‘outsider’ who has worked in varied environments, cultures and work styles will be able to bring in fresh ideas, can look at problems with a different perspective, challenge the status quo, and provide unique solutions.


The dichotomy is that organisations pitch for diversity and inclusion in every platform, and yet, look for candidates with similar industry experience or education from a select few premium institutions. Homophily suggests that there is a tendency for people to develop connections with people who are like them in socially significant ways. Subconsciously such homophily is predominantly prevalent during the hiring process as it is natural to veer towards people who think and act in a similar way.


The effort during the hiring process should be to consciously focus on cognitive diversity apart from visible diversity and invite candidates who do not necessarily conform to the ‘standards’, but bring diversity in their approach.


Manage fear of Conflict


Healthy conflicts are essential to developing great teams. Silence during meetings is a sign of bigger problems at hand. Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, talked about fear of conflict as one of the major dysfunctions which restrict teams from reaching their full potential. When members feel compelled to agree to an emerging consensus it leads to artificial harmony. Not voicing concerns openly and not expressing thoughts and ideas explicitly will then lead to ineffective decision making. For cognitive diversity in the workplace, leaders and managers should encourage constructive conflicts which help in enhancing the overall productivity. Debates, brainstorming sessions, playing the devil’s advocate, switching teams between for and against etc. are some ways to promote honest dialogue, greater collaboration and eliminate the fear of conflict.


Encourage diverse ideas for innovation


To bring in creativity and innovation at the workplace, one should be able to shift perspective and take a different viewpoint. Edward De Bono invented the concept of lateral thinking through Six Thinking Hats where he talks about considering every direction of thinking for problem-solving and using every idea, even if it is crazy, as a stepping stone to see what and where it will lead.


Thus, cognitive diversity is the lynchpin to get at lateral thinking and organisations should motivate employees to look at issues from all angles with different perspectives. Managing emotions is as important as looking at facts and figures. Pointing out all the errors, dangers, difficulties, and potential problems is crucial before generating fresh ideas. 


Organisations should create space and motivate teams to look at all these aspects, individually and collectively, to generate varied and fresh ideas, which leads to lateral thinking. Also, in every meeting and discussion diverse voices and opinions should be heard in order to see how many disagreed and how many unspoken questions or assumptions were brought to the forefront.


Bring people out of their comfort zones


When someone is in the same role, department, or function for a long time, it leads to familiarity in every aspect of work. Developing new skills or bringing diversity in thoughts does not happen effortlessly.


Allocation of work in teams is usually done depending on expertise. While this is needed for speed of execution and finesse, over a period, it leads to stagnation of ideas. For developing a fresh perspective, it is important to bring people out of their familiar compartments and empower them to deal with the discomfort. Growth and diversity in a thought process often happen out of the comfort zone.


Where there is change, there is resistance. So, organisations should make the workforce and workplace receptive to change. When employees are encouraged to explore new ways of doing things, incentivized for developing varied skills and capabilities, motivated to be flexible in their approach and stressed on the need to stay upbeat to change in technology, environment, and other requirements, it leads to cognitive diversity in organisations.


Bigger or more unattainable goals, creating cross-functional teams to find solutions to complex and uncertain situations, allocating tasks beyond their role requirement, tighter timelines etc., enable employees to come out of their comfort zone and develop diverse thinking.


The beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people. The same thing holds good for organisations. Teams that are cognitively diverse perform better as they are alert to the changing environment, equipped to solve complex problems, demonstrate a higher level of learning, and stay unified in achieving the overall objective.

Sushma Bhalkikar is currently heading the HR function for GMR Varalakshmi Foundation (GMRVF), a CSR arm of the GMR Group of companies. With more than two decades of multi-faceted experience, she has extensively worked in the areas of talent acquisition and management, compensation & benefits, L&D, policy formulation, etc.


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