Diverse teams can solve problems faster, but most companies assume that means hiring people of different genders, ages or ethnicity. That’s the biggest mistake you can make.
Cultural diversity is still based on surface appearances and backgrounds. What you need are people who don’t just look different, but think differently. Cognitive diversity: how people engage and process new and uncertain situations.
Cognitively diverse teams tackle problems from different angles
Researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis tested how executive teams responded to a problem. They were given a complex scenario and told to formulate a strategy to achieve a specific outcome. Teams who were just culturally diverse didn’t have any measurable advantage. Those who worked faster and got better results had people with different cognitive styles, based on how they:
- Process information (how they take it in, absorb it and connect it)
- Solve problems (how they gather facts and evidence, generate options, make choices and manage risk)
- Respond to crisis or change (how they feel and respond to ambiguity or conflict)
These teams are like the business version of the Avengers: powerful in their own way, but more powerful together. They have both big thinkers who can see how pieces fit and technical specialists who know one area inside out; creative risk-takers and more pragmatic troubleshooters; logical thinkers and more empathic and intuitive feelers.
How to build a cognitively diverse team
When you look at your team’s cognitive styles, put assumptions aside! Many think that women are automatically feelers, or that programmers are introverts. However, there is no correlation between cognitive style and gender, ethnicity, age and profession.
The Harvard Business Review recommends using the Myers-Briggs test. It measures if someone is:
Extroverted vs. Introverted. Extroverts get their best ideas from sharing and interacting with others; introverts like to process internally.
Sensing vs. Intuitive. Some people look for data and facts to analyze, while others get bursts of big ideas they get from creative intuition.
Thinking vs. Feeling. To borrow from Star Trek: Next Generation, you have people like Data who can use logic to simplify and solve a problem; and you have Deanna Troi who can pick up emotional cues.
Judging vs. Perceiving. Judges want a verdict or closure: after viewing all sides, they want to make a clear decision and declare it “case closed.” Perceivers are comfortable with ambiguity.
Platforms like Grow also encourage teams to become more aware of their own individual thinking style and more observant of team dynamics. Through forums, feedback mechanisms and online quizzes, they discover everyone’s superpower. “We think we know ourselves well,” says Rudi Ramin, CEO of Grow, “but we all have our blind spots. With honest, constructive feedback from our teammates, we can better understand how we function and how we are contributing to the team dynamic."
Cognitive diversity starts with knowing your cognitive bias
Most people are also unaware of their thinking process, which leads to a lot of conflict with those who are solving a problem in a different way. “Why does she keep asking for research and data? Let’s just make a decision now!” “He keeps asking us to brainstorm with him at meetings. Can’t I just get back to him tomorrow? I need time to think!”
That irritation often leads to cognitive bias -- it’s just easier to hire or work with people who think or work like you. Unfortunately this can mean entire teams or departments who only share one point of view. If there is, by chance, one person who thinks differently, they’ll be drowned out by the majority. Problems like this one can’t be addressed until team members are keenly aware of their own thinking styles.
Channel your team’s cognitive diversity
Once team members know how they tackle problems, then they can play off each other’s strengths and customize the work process.
Ask for feedback
Talk to colleagues, seek the advice of a mentor, or organize a team building with activities that bring cognitive styles to surface. You can also reflect on the work situations that frustrate you -- usually, when you’re annoyed by a process, it’s because you’re not comfortable with the way information and decisions were given. That’s a good way of flagging your cognitive bias.
Assign and structure work based on people’s strengths
Assign reports and research to people who like to gather and present data. And if you know that you need to discuss a task with an extrovert, call instead of emailing -- just talking to you will get their ideas flowing.
Accommodate different cognitive styles
If you have a meeting, send questions ahead so people can prepare for them in their own way, and make sure everyone has a chance to speak. Unexpected brainstorming tends to favor Extroverts and Intuitives. Also vary the way you gather information and feedback -- Powerpoints make sense to Thinkers, but don’t capture the insights of Feelers.
Channeling your team’s cognitive diversity is not just realizing that each person’s thought process and decision-making skills differ. It’s about using these differences to your team’s advantage.
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