Diversity and inclusion is a huge area and rightly so – it’s extremely important. Not only does it enable a sense of justice and equality within the workplace, but it also fosters a positive and inclusive work culture which can unleash human potential and increase performance.
I invite you to review what we mean when we refer to diversity and inclusion. I’m sure we can all agree that it is most commonly defined and understood as there being no discrimination based on someone’s age, gender, cultural background, sexual orientation, religion etc. While this view of diversity and inclusion is multifaceted and takes into consideration various elements of diversity, we can still dive deeper and consider other types of diversity. I am hinting towards a type of diversity that resides in our minds and neurological makeup.
What is cognitive diversity and why is it important?
Cognitive diversity describes the range of thinking styles that bring unique perspectives to problems and issues. Neuro-diversity is a subset of cognitive diversity and is about variations in the brain that impact social and learning behaviours. Establishing cognitive diversity in the workplace is becoming increasingly important, especially in today’s competitive landscape. For businesses to remain leaders in the market, they must have strong skills and capabilities in their ability to innovate, approach and solve problems, and respond to change. These capabilities are strengthened and realised through the organisation’s most valuable asset – its employees.
Employees, and the work teams in which they operate in, are essentially a group of unique individuals who come together to discuss problems, analyse information, put forth ideas, make decisions and implement solutions. The value and quality of the solutions or outcomes can depend on a variety of things, one being how diverse the team is. This is where cognitive diversity comes into the picture. The level of cognitive diversity that is present within a team (and ultimately the organisation as a whole), can impact the business enormously and can provide some serious, and often underrated, value.
Imagine a meeting where a clear problem needs to be solved or a new product needs to be developed. If members of a team are similar in their ways of thinking, their ways of approaching problems, and have similar perspectives, the ideas and solutions among they present are likely to converge to a narrower pool of options. However, if members of a team offer alternative ways of thinking, unique perspectives (i.e. are cognitively diverse), the ideas put forward are far more likely to be varied. This widens the pool of ideas, increasing opportunities for innovation and can lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness at problem solving (Harvard Business Review, 2017).
Have you ever heard the saying ‘Great minds think alike’?
Well, do they really? Cognitive diversity strongly challenges this belief. Cognitive diversity is built on the premise that great minds don’t really think alike at all; great minds think differently.
Ok, so what now?
The next time you hear someone talking about diversity and inclusion in your workplace, I invite you to consider what kind of diversity is being referred to. If cognitive diversity is not within the scope of what is being discussed, I encourage you to bring this to the person or team’s attention. I can only hope that this will allow others to learn about and value this different dimension of diversity, and ultimately enable your organisation to excel, transform, innovate and succeed.
Further reading for curious people
Justine Ross works as a business transformation consultant at IBM in Melbourne, Australia.