One type of diversity your team is missing: here's where to find it

Does everyone on the team think alike?

A push to increase diversity seems to be on every organization's list of goals. This could include bringing more women and minorities on board, or pushing for representation from a range of ages, backgrounds, and economic statuses.

But according to research by Alison Reynolds, a faculty member at Ashridge Business School, and David Lewis, the director of the London Business School's Senior Executive Programme, organizations are neglecting the type of diversity that impacts success most: cognitive diversity.

'Diversity' refers to more than just race

Reynolds and Lewis say cognitive diversity refers to individuals' different styles of processing information. Cognitive diversity, they note, is not related to gender, ethnicity, or age, and it is difficult to identify from the outside.

To better understand how cognitive diversity correlates with success, Reynolds and Lewis asked six different teams with various levels of cognitive diversity complete an exercise a total of 100 times.

For the purpose of their research, Reynolds and Lewis considered two different aspects of cognitive diversity in the group members:

  1. How people process knowledge: Do they use knowledge they already have when faced with uncertainty, or do they seek new knowledge?
  2. How people approach perspective: Do they use their own expertise to tackle problems, or do they default to the expertise of others?

Analyzing the results, the researchers found:

  • The groups with cognitive diversity of in both areas were able to complete the exercise quickly; and
  • Groups with less cognitive diversity took much longer to complete the exercise or failed to complete it altogether.

According to Reynolds and Lewis, cognitive diversity is difficult to achieve, since people tend to be subconsciously biased toward people who demonstrate similar cognitive behaviors as themselves. This can affect hiring decisions and lead to a cognitively homogenous team, the researchers argue. Such a team would be limited when it comes to their ability to initiate change or seek new solutions.

Implicit bias is inevitable, but not unstoppable—here's what some schools are doing to fight it

Reynolds and Lewis aren't alone in this argument. In 2015, workplace productivity expert Carson Tate urged organizations to build and encourage teams with diverse work styles, which Tate said leaders could accomplish by:

  • Identifying work styles by observing behavior or patterns;
  • Matching people to projects that fit with their unique approaches; and
  • Coaching or managing individuals according to their distinct work style.

In 2016, Jessica Wisdom and Henry Wei of Google looked further into team performance and found that for a team to be truly successful:

  • The team must have a climate of psychological safety;
  • Team members must find meaning in their work;
  • Team members must be dependable;
  • The team must be well-structured; and
  • The team must make an impact.

(Lewsi/Reynolds, Harvard Business Review, 3/30).

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