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Are you encouraging diverse thought at work?

7 Jan 2021 By Stuart Affleck

Businesses that embrace cognitive diversity in the workplace will gain a competitive edge, says Stuart Affleck

The inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, said: “We need diversity of thought in the world to face the new challenges.” Berners-Lee probably didn’t have a global pandemic in mind when he spoke these words and, although the word ‘unprecedented’ has been used so many times this year it has almost lost all meaning, the challenges facing businesses this year have certainly been unpredictable. 

So have companies been heeding Berners-Lee’s advice and embracing diversity of thought to tackle the mountain that has been 2020? 

Thankfully, diversity and inclusion issues have been placed firmly at the top of most businesses’ agendas over the past few years, but one issue that still passes firmly under the radar for many is diversity of thought, otherwise known as cognitive diversity. It’s a simple concept – the idea that companies can benefit from having a variety of viewpoints around a table. 

Research from Ashridge Business School’s Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, director of London Business School’s senior executive programme, found senior teams that are cognitively diverse tend to solve problems the fastest, although they acknowledged that a degree of psychological safety was still important. Psychological safety “is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”, write Reynolds and Lewis in the Harvard Business Review. 

Many businesses may find that they already have cognitive diversity but aren’t seeing the benefits as they’re lacking psychological safety. Creating this safety net can often require organisations to examine their internal cultures, break down barriers and ensure all staff members are encouraged to speak out, no matter their position or seniority. 

We’re currently seeing an unprecedented situation in a lot of workplaces, where five generations are working together for the first time. This naturally creates a huge amount of cognitive diversity that can ensure a problem, such as how to deal with coronavirus in a business setting, for example, is dealt with using a wide variety of viewpoints and experiences. However, if the less experienced members of staff aren’t empowered to speak out, you may be losing some valuable insight.

As with many cultural issues in the workplace, fixing the problem should be led from the top. Ensuring the company’s leadership team is inclusive and encouraging open and honest discussions is very important. It’s not just about words, but actions too – management teams should be leading by example and opening up their meetings to diverse voices across the business. 

Some firms may actually find, upon examining their workforce, that they might be lacking cognitive diversity. This isn’t unusual as so many companies tend to hire in their own image and unconscious biases often stretch to personality types – this is called affinity bias and means that naturally we lean towards those individuals who we can find common ground with. We might have gone to the same university or support the same football team, for example. 

In a recruitment environment, this often translates to businesses hiring very similar personality types time and time again because they know what works and who gels with the wider team. Disrupting this status quo can feel uncomfortable – especially if there was a bad experience with a certain personality type in the past. But all the research certainly points firmly towards the importance of fostering an inclusive, cognitively diverse workplace.

The opposite of comfortable isn’t necessarily uncomfortable – it can mean different. And in today’s unparalleled business environment, different can be good. Just ask Berners-Lee. 

Stuart Affleck is director of Brook Graham, part of Pinsent Masons 

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