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How to Leverage Cognitive Diversity Within Your Team & Organization
June 15, 2020

Last week, I wrote about how we all have unconscious biases, and the importance of breaking down those barriers to make our workplaces and the world a better place.  

I received a lot of great feedback and encouragement to share more, so this week, I decided to expand on how to leverage cognitive diversity within your team and organization.

First, let us revisit the definition of cognitive diversity to ensure we are all grounded on the topic at hand. 

Cognitive diversity is the differences in opinions, worldviews, beliefs, and ways of thinking. We all have different areas of expertise, have had our own life experiences, and hold our own unique perspectives on various topics.  

High-performing teams are not made up of like-minded individuals; quite the contrary. If we all thought the same way, this would leave little room for diversity of thought and creativity.  

Research shows that cognitive diversity can enhance team innovation by up to 20 percent, and it can reduce risks taken by up to 30 percent. Diverse teams are also capable of resolving problems faster than teams that lack diversity, even though it may not feel as comfortable. The bottom line is this – teams with diversity of thought will outperform teams that are not as diverse.  

Google also did some work around team effectiveness through Project Aristotle. The insights from this research are so profound, not only for team effectiveness, but the findings also demonstrated the importance of psychological safety in the workplace, which fosters diversity and inclusion.

As leaders, you need to start by creating an environment that values, appreciates, and includes every single member of your team. We need to create a safe place for individuals to freely express themselves as well as be themselves when contributing their own strengths to the team.  

Researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. There were five effectiveness pillars that were identified. For the purpose of this discussion, we are going to focus on pillar number one – psychological safety.

Psychological safety is defined as an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. 

In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

The second step to creating a high-performing team environment, based on psychological safety, is establishing team norms or rules of engagement for the team.  

I have had the distinct pleasure of running these workshops for my clients where we take an intact team and we define their own rules of engagement based on the team members’ needs, goals, and objectives. It is a profound process, and one that requires a high degree of trust, vulnerability, risk-taking and openness. We spend a few intimate hours together exploring what each team member needs to feel safe based on their own cognitive and behavioral preferences. We also explore what the team needs overall.  

Here are some additional thoughts that will support you in building a company culture that values cognitive diversity and inclusion: 

  • Make it a priority and invest in the process. I can almost guarantee that diversity and inclusion is a priority for your company, so change the language and strategy to include “cognitive” diversity. It starts with your thinking, so the logical first step is to begin there and identify what that would look like for your organization. What are the steps you need to take to make cognitive diversity and inclusion a real priority? 
  • Invest in your people. I am not advocating this because I am a leadership coach and facilitator. I am encouraging this because your people are your greatest asset and they require more than the core skills to do their jobs. They also require skills that support them in navigating conflict, managing/handling change and valuing diversity and inclusion. We need to challenge both their head and heart to create a company culture that values and includes everyone equally.
  • Recruit and hire for strengths that are lacking or that will provide the diversity of thought and expertise. We have an unconscious tendency to hire people who are like us if we lack awareness and emotional maturity. We need to create diverse teams if we seek to create a high-performance culture. Search for specializations that are not strongly represented in your current workforce, and recruit individuals with different backgrounds and experiences that will complement the existing team.
  • When you are creating cross-functional project teams & task forces, ensure you have a balanced perspective for your projects and initiatives. Invite participants from various teams that bring different perspectives and areas of expertise. You want your project and initiatives to be successful, so ensure you have the necessary cognitive diversity in place to foster creativity and innovation.

  • Employee net promoter score and customer net promoter score must have equal or greater value to your organization. Are you measuring employee engagement and satisfaction? Progressive organizations tap into the voice of their employee’s as much as possible. They make two-way communication and feedback a priority and are not afraid to actively seek it out. In fact, I would argue that if you take care of your people, you will take care of your business. Most companies have this reversed, and are fearful of administering an annual employee survey, let alone making it part of the way they do business. Cognitive diversity will have little impact if employees do not feel like they can voice their opinions. 
  • Ensure you have the right leadership talent and bench strength in place to create the desired culture, environment and results you want for your organization. You can also invest in a psychometric assessment tool that will assist you in taking the guesswork out of how others prefer to think and behave. I am a huge fan of Emergenetics, and I use the assessment tool in my private coaching engagements, programs, and workshops for my business. There are other tools on the market that are helpful but this is presently the only tool that distinguishes between the way we prefer to think and behave, which is why I decided to seek out my certification and licensing in Emergenetics. The bottom line is this – we cannot let tools take away the responsibility that comes with leadership to establish and model the right thinking and behaviors for others to follow. Creating a company culture that values cognitive diversity and inclusion starts with you.

More Tips and Advice on Leveraging Cognitive Diversity in Your Organization

What are your thoughts on how to create a culture that values cognitive diversity? Do you have any advice or ideas on what to do to foster more cognitive diversity and inclusion within your own team or workplace? This is an important priority for you and for all businesses, so feel free to reach out to me directly. I would love to chat with you in more detail. Call me at 1.855.871.3374 or email me at joanne.trotta@leadersedgeinc.ca 

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