magic ingredient

The Magic Ingredient for Teams – Cognitive Diversity

Search on the term Cognitive Diversity in Teams and you will find hundreds of scholarly articles on the topic in journals, as well as editorial articles in magazines from all over the world. So what is cognitive diversity and why is it a magical ingredient for teams?

Highly diverse teams bring a wealth of thinking, creativity and opportunity as the article author Richard Bliss states “diversity in the workplace or on a team is a competitive advantage. It’s also something that is not easily copied or replicated”.

So why is it so hard to build a diverse team and get them to work effectively together? Well that is because that same diversity of thought can generate friction and cause conflict through the debate of alternative opinions. The greater the wealth of different opinions and diverging thoughts the harder to corral and align for critical decisions.

This topic is tackled in the book The Soft Edge by Rich Karlgaard, he talks about building the skill of teamwork and trust as being critical and one of the soft edges for business.

Image Credit: Pexels

Bringing together a team of people with rich but diverse experience and talent can see a natural conflict occur as individuals all have strong opinions and the confidence in their own viewpoints.

According to Vivek Wadhwa (Singularity University) its because we are all programmed that sharing (work) is bad in junior school “When you and I went to school, we were taught to be individuals . . . If we shared knowledge with each other, it was called cheating.”

But we all know that sharing, cooperation and effective collaboration are critical to the success of any team. The actual process of thrashing through alternatives, exchanging opposing opinions and individual perspectives helps everyone to consider and robustly test assumptions.

In the Harvard Business Review, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis wrote: “Colleagues gravitate toward the people who think and express themselves in a similar way. As a result, organizations often end up with like-minded teams.”  they go on to point out that unfortunately, “This lack of cognitive diversity has two impacts. First, it reduces the opportunity to strengthen the proposition with input from people who think differently. Second, it fails to represent the cognitive diversity of the employee population, reducing the impact of the initiatives.

It is important that any debate over diverse thinking is left to recognising all opinions and no such thing as having a bad idea and be based on respect avoiding any potential disharmony.

Cognitive Diversity is where you bring different type of thinkers to decision making, mixing those who are creative thinkers, with strategists, those who are analytical numbers people with those that just go with the gut.

This cognitive diversity increases the ability of the team to make sound judgments on major decisions when led by a leader who has earned the trust of their team members.

Rich Karlgaard

Bliss goes on to say “When people emotionally invest themselves in a team, it’s another attribute that’s nearly impossible to replicate”.

And he is right a team that the members love being a part of has the right culture. A team that can play to all the team members strengths will perform at its best. And a team that can robustly test and learn from diverse opinions will make better quality decisions.

A key to making cognitive diversity work does depend not just on the composition of the team members, it also requires mutual respect and a clearly agreed structured decision making process that resolves conflicts and differences of opinion.

Key Takeaways

  • Diversity in teams can turn out to be the magic ingredient.
  • Care needs to be taken to get the culture right, a team needs respect, resilience and buy-in to the process of debate and diverse opinion.
  • A structured decision making process is essential to ensure that teams to get stuck and destructive.
Synopsis of an article published on The Digital Executive
Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace
By Richard Bliss
Published: 5th November 2020

and in HBR
Teams solve problems faster when they're more cognitively diverse
By Alison Reynolds and David Lewis
Published: March 2017

and in the Journal of Management Studies
What a Diverse Top Management Team Means: Testing an Integrated Model
by Li‐Qun Wei and Longzeng Wu
Published: 28th December 2012

and in Forbes
The Benefits of Cognitive Diversity
By Janine Schindler

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