Cognitive diversity: how to realise the real purpose of diversity and inclusion

Cognitive diversity and creating a culture of innovation

A culture that values difference and diversity must start at the top and be carried through to hiring people with unique perspectives and worldviews, writes Judith MacCormick

In the realm of cognitive diversity, business leaders, ethicists and researchers tend to focus on how diverse a company’s board, executive leadership and management are. The argument goes, having different thinking styles and perspectives around the boardroom will enable organisations to be more innovative and navigate the complexity of the volatile, ambiguous, complex and unpredictable world of business.

This is of course the case, but increased diversity of board members and organisational leaders is not the end of the diversity journey for organisations. It’s merely just the beginning. Enabling and managing cognitive diversity must move beyond the leadership and into all levels of the business, so that the diversity leaders sought after quantitatively, comes to fruition qualitatively and delivers social, economic and cultural growth for the organisation and its employees.

Be unconventional with hiring
If an organisation wants to unlock the power of creativity and fresh thinking, it first needs to start hiring in a way that puts cognitive diversity at the centre. Rather than hiring people who demonstrate exactly what the company wants, organisations should hire people who showcase the potential to constantly question established ways of doing things – people who think of new approaches to systems and processes that may not even be broken in the first place, but are taken for granted. If companies do what they’ve always done, they’ll get what they’ve always gotten. And in a fast-paced, constantly evolving business landscape, that won’t get them very far.

“Organisations should hire people who showcase the potential to constantly question established ways of doing things

Take Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup, for example. Conant joined the company when their sales and market value were sharply declining. Instead of concentrating on aspects like pricing that had taken centre stage before, Conant shifted focus to employee engagement. His goal was to rebuild trust and restructure management functions, as well as hire and retain people who challenge the status-quo. This approach turned around the company’s profitability, strengthened employee engagement and resulted in a share price that outperformed the Standard & Poor’s Index.

Although it may seem these approaches require an organisation to completely overhaul their recruitment strategy, it’s much simpler than that.

An article in Fast Company suggests even adding one question to a set of interview questions can help increase levels of cognitive diversity in the business. The question, “are you willing to be wrong about your opinion in the world?” can determine whether a candidate has the potential to engage in creative conflict to challenge, be challenged and stretch the organisation’s thinking into new areas.

Taking an unconventional approach to hiring is guaranteed to shake up how individuals within the organisation, as well as the organisation itself, addresses problems. For example, rather than hiring the people that achieved high and similar scores on their psychometric and other aptitude tests, hire people who didn’t have similar answers. This suggests they came to different conclusions as a result of different thinking styles, and rather than seeing them as not fitting together, consider how they can complement each other and can open new doors of possibility.

Changing culture
Just as organisations shouldn’t look to bring people into the company whose past success completely fits the bill, they also shouldn’t hire people who fit with their culture entirely. To be committed to achieving a cognitively diverse workforce means a commitment to a constantly evolving culture – one that values difference, respectful conflict and out-of-the-box thinking.

“If companies do what they’ve always done, they’ll get what they’ve always gotten”

But how do organisations build an ever-changing culture of diverse thinking?

The most effective way for companies to manage cognitive diversity is to create the contexts and scenarios for this type of diversity to emerge. This can be encouraged through tasking every team with the responsibility to be innovators in their own way – not just those who have innovation or development in their job descriptions.

When tackling a problem, at the board level all the way down to interns and entry-level roles, employees should be asked to not only think of what they believe to be the best answer, but also 3-5 other ways they could approach that problem. Cross-collaboration and brainstorms with other functions – think the marketing team working with the engineers and the legal team, for example – is also effective in helping people consider problems through different lenses and frameworks.

It’s also important to not only get employees out of their comfort zones, but to get rid of their comfort zones completely. An experiment dating back to the early 20th century found that when individuals experience “optimal anxiety” – that is, they are out of their comfort zone but not too far along the spectrum of stress – the stimulation they experience actually improves their performance. Their ability to think on their feet improves and they are more willing to take risks in order to stay ahead of the curve.

For an organisation to be truly cognitively diverse, what happens at board and leadership levels should not stay there. A culture that values difference must start there and be carried through the entire organisation through hiring people with unique perspectives and worldviews, and sustaining an environment that encourages this difference.

Image source: iStock