INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

Cognitive diversity

By Sarah Alfares, IT Systems Analyst, Aramco

Many of us have come across the notion that diversity is beneficial to organizations, with positive effects on performance and creative problem-solving. However, not everything turns out to be as we might have been led to believe.

In an experiment conducted over the span of 12 years, teams with an average size of 16 were asked to complete a specified business exercise. The exercise was repeated over 100 times, with the results indicating no correlation between diversity in gender, age, and ethnicity, and the group’s performance in solving the problem. Does this mean that what we have learned about diversity was wrong all along? If so, what made some teams perform well while others did not?

The answers to these questions are not obvious but could be related to an important concept known as cognitive diversity, which refers to the differences in people’s information processing and problem-solving styles. These cognitive differences are established at a young age and are not predicted by factors like gender or culture. Increasing cognitive diversity has been shown to have a positive effect on performance, problem-solving, and risk reduction.

So were we wrong about diversity? Not entirely so. It seems likely that increasing identity diversity (i.e., age, gender, and ethnicity) inadvertently increases cognitive diversity, as it expands the talent pool to include more unique thinkers and talented individuals. Additionally, focusing on recruiting people who are different on the outside could help recruiters reduce their own biases and become more open to hiring those who think differently than themselves. Finally, the more diverse the team, the less likely it is for its members to devolve into groupthink, which is when the desire for conformity leads to suboptimal decisions.

However, even if the right hiring decisions are made, diversity on its own is not enough if the company culture is not supportive. For example, leaders may signal their own preferences or rely on their own expertise, thus undermining the existing cognitive diversity. In addition to being self-aware, leaders should surround themselves with people who disagree with them and encourage employees to speak up, ask questions, and try their own ways of doing things.

More importantly, leaders should instill a sense of psychological safety, which means that mistakes and misinformed opinions will be treated with curiosity, rather than causing humiliation or social retribution.

When employees feel safe to come forward with their thoughts, opinions, and questions, the environment becomes more amenable to creative problem-solving.

Organizations that foster both cognitive diversity and psychological safety are highly adaptable and encourage both curiosity and learning. On the other hand, organizations lacking in these attributes have more hierarchical interactions and tend to be more controlled and constrained. Leaders should start by becoming aware of their organizational culture, as well as their own behaviors, to reduce the challenges associated with diversity. By improving communication and fostering collaboration, the full benefits of diversity can be realized.