Embracing diversity in the workplace is important. In order to build the most successful teams, you need to embrace all different types of people.
And that includes different types of thinkers—also known as cognitive diversity.
But what, exactly, is cognitive diversity—and why does it matter? Let’s take a deep dive into this type of diversity: what it means, the importance of it in the workplace, and how to create a more cognitively diverse work environment within your organization.
Cognitive Diversity 101
Cognitive diversity means the different ways people think, solve problems, process information, and make decisions.
In a cognitively diverse workplace, there are a variety of people who approach challenges in different ways—and by working together, they can gain fresh perspectives and insights.
This can make problem-solving, decision-making, and generating ideas significantly more productive and effective.
Is Cognitive Diversity the Same Thing as Neurodiversity?
Yes, cognitive diversity is the same thing as neurodiversity.
What Type of Diversity is Cognitive Diversity?
Different types of diversity generally fall into one of four categories—and interestingly, cognitive diversity could technically be included in each category. Here are the four types of diversity and how cognitive diversity fits in:
- Internal Diversity: Internal diversity is connected to a trait or characteristic someone is born with. This includes things like ethnicity, race, culture, and sexual orientation. Because there are certain cognitive traits people are born with (like being on the autism spectrum), diversity in cognition falls under the internal diversity umbrella.
- External Diversity: External diversity refers to traits or characteristics associated with a person’s identity that, instead of being born with, they acquire and/or experience during their life. This includes things like socioeconomic status or marital status. Because there are cognitive traits people gain through their experiences (like approaching problem-solving in a specific way), cognitive diversity also qualifies as external diversity.
- Organizational Diversity: Organizational diversity has to do with the differences between employees within an organization, both as a whole and in different categories (for example, departments, teams, or management). An organization whose employees are all nearly identical wouldn’t be considered diverse—while an organization that has different types of people (for example, people with different educational backgrounds and people of varying races and genders) working across the company in a variety of roles and functions would be considered more organizationally diverse. Embracing cognitive diversity in the workplace will lead to more organizational diversity.
- Industry Diversity: That's when people from different industries and sectors are hired to help a business do and think in a new way. They bring fresh ideas and experiences to the table, which is certainly a competitive advantage.
- Worldview Diversity: As the name suggests, worldview diversity has to do with the way people view the world. Because people’s perspectives tend to shift based on their experiences (for example, experiences with travel or education), worldview diversity is fluid—and can (and often does) change over time. Creating teams of people with different perspectives, different viewpoints, and different ways of thinking can influence how individual team members see the world and bring more cognitive diversity to an organization.
Why is Building Cognitively Diverse Teams Important?
Embracing diversity in thought and cognition—and building a more cognitively diverse workforce—is important for a variety of reasons, including:
Drives Better Problem-Solving
In many cases, in order to effectively solve a problem, you need to approach it from all angles.
But if you have a lack of cognitive diversity, your team may not be able to approach that problem in different ways. Because everyone has the same thinking habits, the entire team is going to approach the problem in the same way—and if that way isn’t the best way, they’re going to get stuck.
On the flip side, when your team is full of people with different styles of thinking and different perspectives, they’re going to approach the problem in a variety of different ways. And because they’re approaching the problem in multiple ways, they’re more likely to find a solution—and find a solution faster.
According to research outlined in the Harvard Business Review, when asked to perform a problem-solving exercise, teams with high cognitive diversity significantly outperformed less cognitively diverse teams; of the six teams that participated, the three most cognitively diverse teams finished the exercise between 21 minutes and 22.5 minutes—while the less cognitively diverse teams took anywhere between 34.5 minutes and 60 minutes (which was considered failing the exercise).
The point is, when you have cognitive diversity, you have a team of people thinking about and approaching problems in different ways—and the more ways they think about and approach the problem, the more successful they’ll ultimately be in finding an effective solution.
Lowers the Risk of Groupthink
As the name suggests, groupthink happens when everyone within a given group (like an organization or team) feels pressured to think the same way. No one presents any new ideas—or challenges the existing ideas of the group–for fear of being ostracized.
At best, groupthink stifles innovation and creativity—and at worst, it can perpetuate potentially harmful practices or ideologies. For example, if an employee sees a woman on their team being treated unfairly—but the majority of the company’s leadership are men that perpetuate a “good old boy’s club” mentality—that employee might not feel comfortable speaking up for their female colleague.
Because cognitive diversity brings together people with different perspectives, ideas, and ways of thinking, it lowers the likelihood of groupthink in the workplace—and the challenges that go along with it.
Drives Creativity and Innovation
If a lack of diversity in the ways of thinking and approaching a problem can stifle creativity and innovation, the opposite is also true.
When you have teams of diverse thinkers working together, the diversity of thought they bring to everything from brainstorming new products to solving customer issues will help generate better, more creative ideas and more innovative solutions to problems. That can give you a competitive advantage and improve your company’s overall performance.
For example, let’s say you’re brainstorming new product ideas. If all of your employees think in the same way, they’re going to come up with similar ideas. On the other hand, if you have a team of diverse thinkers, they’re going to bring a diverse set of ideas to the brainstorming session—which increases the chances that one of those ideas will be a slam dunk for your new product.
Boosts Employee Engagement
If you want to build a thriving organization, having an engaged workforce is non-negotiable. And one key strategy for driving engagement—particularly for millennials, the largest generation in the United States workforce?
Embracing cognitive diversity.
According to research from Deloitte, millennials “are much more concerned with cognitive diversity, or diversity of thoughts, ideas, and philosophies.” And when they have the opportunity to work in an environment they consider diverse (millennials are 29 percent more likely to focus on ideas, opinions, and thoughts when defining diversity), they’re more engaged with that environment. (According to the research, 83 percent of millennials are actively engaged when they believe the organization fosters an inclusive culture.)
Bottom line? If you want your organization to be successful, you need your employees to be engaged. And if you want your employees to be engaged—particularly your millennial employees, which make up the largest (and arguably most influential) demographic? You need to prioritize cognitive diversity.
Challenges to Creating a Cognitively Diverse Team
While building a cognitively diverse team is important, it’s not without its challenges.
Some of those challenges include:
- Lack of diversity in general: If your entire organization is made up of the same type of people, it’s going to be hard to find people that think differently—or, in other words, if your company lacks diversity in general, it’s going to lack cognitive diversity as well.
- Interviewing practices: Often, interviewers ask people about their background, skills, and experience. But that doesn’t necessarily give you insight into how they think—and if you don’t get an understanding of how people think during the interview process, hiring people with different ways of thinking and problem-solving is going to be a challenge.
- Department or role-specific talent silos: Certain types of thinkers are often drawn to certain positions or departments, which can lead to talent silos. For example, methodical thinkers may naturally be interested in engineering or tech positions—while more creative thinkers might gravitate toward marketing or design.
Can it be challenging to build cognitively diverse teams? Yes. But there are ways to overcome those challenges—and it’s more than worth the effort.
How to Embrace Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace
You know what cognitive diversity is. You know why it matters and some of the challenges you’ll face while fostering diversity of thought in the workplace. Now, let’s talk about how to overcome those challenges and build a more cognitively diverse environment.
There are a number of ways to embrace cognitive diversity in the workplace, including:
Make it a Big Part of Your Hiring Process
If you want to build a cognitively diverse organization, you need to hire people with different thinking styles, different learning styles, and different approaches to problem-solving and decision-making. And to do that? You need to make cognitive diversity a key part of your hiring process.
When sourcing, screening, and interviewing candidates, make sure to include questions and exercises that give you insight into how they think and approach problems. If you give potential candidates a problem to solve, don’t just look at the answer or solution they provide; instead, ask them to walk you through their process and explain how they came to that answer or solution.
Making cognitive diversity a focus during your interviewing and hiring process will ensure that you build a team of people that think and approach problems in different ways—and that you reap all the benefits that go along with those kinds of cognitively diverse teams.
Integrate it into Your Learning and Development Strategy
Hiring people that think and approach problems differently is key to embracing cognitive diversity in the workplace. But it’s important to remember that when you hire people that think and approach problems differently, chances are, they also learn differently. And so, if you want to empower your team to do their best work, you need to take those learning differences into account.
As you’re creating your learning and development strategy, make sure to offer a diverse set of educational and professional development opportunities that appeal to different learning styles. For example, if your initiatives are geared at helping employees learn a new software platform, some employees thrive using self-paced video tutorials—while others might benefit more from an in-person workshop.
You can also give employees a chance to lead their own L&D workshops—and share their ways of thinking and approaching problems with their co-workers. For example, if you have a team of employees that are extremely methodical problem-solvers, you might have them give a presentation on their systems and processes to some of your less organized teams.
Create Teams Strategically
It’s not enough to hire a cognitively diverse workforce. In order to reap the benefits of cognitive diversity, you need to be strategic about how you organize that workforce—and make sure that cognitive diversity isn’t just represented in your organization as a whole, but within individual teams and departments.
When you’re building teams, consider each individual team member’s thinking and problem-solving style—and make sure the team you’re assembling has the diversity of thought necessary to avoid groupthink and drive creativity, innovation, and performance.
If you have teams where you struggle to find that kind of diversity (for example, if your IT employees all have a near-identical approach to solving problems), consider expanding the team by hiring new employees with different mindsets and styles of thinking—or, at the very least, bringing in employees from other departments to offer fresh perspectives.
Facilitate Effective Conflict Management
When you bring together people with different styles of thinking, there are going to be differences of opinion. And that’s a positive; those differences of opinion are what ultimately drive innovation.
But sometimes, those differences can escalate and lead to conflict. And if you don’t want that conflict to cause lasting issues (for example, decreased employee morale), it’s important to create an environment where employees can work through conflict in a productive, effective way.
Let your employees know that it’s ok to disagree with their colleagues, managers, or leadership—and that your work environment allows working through those disagreements.
Invest in conflict management and resolution training to give your team the tools they need to navigate conflict and disagreements more effectively. And let employees know that abusive and/or aggressive approaches to conflict (for example, screaming or speaking poorly about other employees behind their backs) will not be tolerated.
Foster a Culture that Celebrates Diversity
One of the best things you can do to encourage cognitive diversity in the workplace is to show your employees that your organization embraces diversity in general.
When employees see that they are not only accepted, but celebrated for their differences, they’ll be more likely to embrace and showcase those differences in the workplace—including cognitive differences.
So, make sure that workplace diversity in all forms is a foundational part of your company culture—for example, by prioritizing DEI initiatives, setting diversity hiring benchmarks, and building diverse leadership and management teams.
Use These Tips to Create a More Cognitively Diverse Organization
Embracing diversity is a key element in building a successful organization—and that includes cognitive diversity. Building a more cognitively diverse workplace drives innovation and creativity, empowers a higher level of performance, and keeps top employees engaged with their work and the organization.
And now that you know how to embrace cognitive diversity in the workplace, all that’s left to do? Get out there and start building teams with diverse ways of thinking and approaching problems—and watch your employees, teams, and organization as a whole thrive.