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Cognitive Diversity (or Diversity of Thought): It's Not What You Think

Over the past few years, more and more corporate leaders and consultants have been talking about a “new” kind of workplace diversity: cognitive diversity, which can also be referred to as diversity of thought.

All the attention it’s getting is something of a double-edged sword, though. On the one hand, it’s great that so many people are beginning to see that cognitive diversity plays an important role in a business’s success.

But on the other, the term itself is getting thrown around so much—often in very general or superficial ways—that it risks becoming just another piece of meaningless jargon.

Cognitive diversity isn’t just new packaging on an old idea about the dangers of surrounding yourself with “yes men.” It’s also not just another way of saying that if you let conflicting ideas and perspectives rub up against each other for a long enough time, eventually something positive will come from it.

Too often, these discussions skim the surface, suggesting that you just need to bring together differences of opinion and you can expect great things to happen. In fact, diversity of thought is more tangible than that; it’s something that can be measured. And just as crucial, the business benefits only come through intention. You have to get crystal clear about what it is, and then you need the processes, frameworks and leadership to take advantage of it.

What Exactly Is Cognitive Diversity?

As the name implies, different people think in different ways. This isn’t just about background, experiences and opinions, although all of those factors tend to play a part.

Fundamentally, it’s about the differences people have in how they prefer to think.

An easy way to understand this is through the Herrmann Whole Brain® Model, a four-quadrant metaphorical model of the brain, based on research originally conducted at General Electric’s world-class corporate university in Crotonville, N.Y. The model shows how thinking falls into four preference clusters that we each have access to. It’s like your thinking system, comprised of four different thinking “selves.”

You have all of these four thinking selves available to you, but if you’re like most of us, you probably prefer some of them over others. Like a sports team, you have your go-to players that you most naturally rely on majority of the time, while others sit on the bench.

When we talk about cognitive diversity, we’re talking about this diversity of thinking preferences.

Each of the four preferences — analytical, practical, relational and experimental — contribute value to the business. You can’t run an organization and remain successful over the long term without all of this thinking in play and, often, in very specific ways. From our database of more than two million thinkers, we can even identify patterns of thinking that are common in particular occupations.

And that brings us to the next essential point: With a validated assessment, thinking preferences can be measured, and those results can then easily be interpreted and translated into predictable behaviors and outcomes in the workplace.

So now you have a tangible way to start looking at things like how cognitively diverse thinkers will work together, what challenges they’re going to face when they come at a problem from entirely different thinking angles, what processes and tools they’ll need, and what specific combination of thinking strengths will be best suited to a particular problem or task. That’s how you start to get intentional about diversity of thought.


Leading Cognitive Diversity

Just like any other form of diversity, cognitive diversity is something you already have within any organization or group, but that doesn’t mean it’s being applied.

Without inclusive leaders who understand the value different styles of thinking bring to the table and are skilled at encouraging people to both contribute their thinking and be open to the perspectives and ideas of others, many well-intended initiatives never get anywhere. Worse, they can devolve into unproductive conflict and chaos, sabotaging any future efforts to focus on diversity of thought.

The more cognitively diverse the team is, the more important it is to have an inclusive leader who can manage and facilitate the process to make sure everyone is heard and that there’s a clear game plan to keep the goal in sight.

4 Steps to Getting Started with Cognitive Diversity

Don’t expect that bringing together a bunch of people with widely different backgrounds and experiences will be the miracle cure for all your business problems. Go beyond the surface to get the benefits of diversity of thought:

  • Define cognitive diversity within your organization and measure it.
  • Provide the tools to make it practical and tangible.
  • Develop inclusive leaders who encourage cognitive diversity, facilitate it, and manage it.
  • Apply your awareness of the team's cognitive diversity to think differently about stubborn challenges and tough problems.

With some clarity and intention, your team can leverage cognitive diversity to generate and grow the business.

Download our inclusive leadership playbook to learn five steps for immediately turning cognitive diversity into business results.

Download the Guide

The four-color, four-quadrant graphic, HBDI® and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.

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