Take a look at your team. Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? Has it recently produced something extraordinary? If not, why? In our experience, there are a finite set of reasons why a team doesn’t collaborate to its full potential. One of those is failing to harness the power of the group’s cognitive diversity.
Cognitive diversity is the range of ways in which people:
- Make sense of new information (How we take in, absorb and process information)
- Solve problems (How we design and go through the process of exploring evidence, generating options, making choices, and managing risk)
- Respond to an unfamiliar situation (How we source the confidence to move ahead in the face of ambiguity)
This type of diversity produces better business outcomes: It enhances innovation by 20%, reduces risks by 30%, and eases the implementation of decisions.
One recent study argues cognitive diversity is more important than identity diversity (age, gender, race) when it comes to team performance. Other leading thinkers assert they go hand-in-hand because identity diversity increases quality of dialogue, creates a safer space, and reduces the risk of biases, all of which in turn bring out the best thinking of the group.
What’s undoubtedly true is that you already have cognitive diversity on your team. The question is whether you’re capturing the full benefit of it. Probably not. Leaders often inadvertently suppress this form of diversity because they make choices and send signals that are in line with their own cognitive preferences.
The good news, however, is that we’ve seen that a little self-awareness and self-management can go a very, very long way. Take these three steps to leverage the full potential of your team’s mental capacity.
Step 1: Become aware of your own cognitive preferences
When moking sense of new information do you prefer to:
A) Immerse yourself in the details, then look for patterns OR
B) Scan for themes and patterns, then dive into the data to the degree necessary
While solving a problem, do you prefer to focus your time and attention on:
A) Exploring evidence
B) Developing options
C) Managing the process
D) Deciding which option to pursue
E) Mitigating risk
When faced with a new situation, do you instinctively:
A) Rely on past experiences / models OR
B) Generate new solutions
Once you have the answers, it is useful to reflect on places where the people on your team work differently than you do. Just realizing that we have different preferences can unlock formerly frustrating situations and help you recognize the value that can come from working differently.
Step 2: Recognize where you may be shutting down others
- Do you get impatient when people ask you for more data?
- Do you think it’s sloppy thinking when someone starts generating hypotheses before they’ve digested all the available information?
- Do you tend to solve problems with people who have the same orientation as you do?
- Do you get frustrated following someone else’s process?
- Do you secretly (or not so secretly) assume that people focused on risks are just nay-sayers?
- Have others pegged you as reinventing the wheel unnecessarily?
- Are you getting feedback that you need more “fresh thinking?”
Step 3: Deploy strategies to harness the cognitive diversity of your team
Strategy 1: Talk to your team. Share your observations about yourself, ask for feedback, and set a group intention to work together to unlock the power of diverse thinking
Strategy 2: Go “meta” on your own thoughts, feelings and actions. During a meeting or 1:1, ask yourself: Is my way better or just different? Have I dominated this discussion? What perspectives haven’t we heard?
Strategy 3: Design collaborative processes to optimize for the team’s strengths. For example, if you love generating solutions, but dislike the root cause analysis, ask someone to volunteer to do that work. Chances are, what you consider drudgery, others consider fun
Strategy 4: Accommodate different processing preferences without slowing down. For example, let’s say you’re planning a meeting to review employee engagement results. Send the detailed data as a pre-read and include the top two to three questions you plan to cover in the meeting. Let each person prepare in the way that makes sense to them. This increases the likelihood that everyone will able to perform at their best.
We fear the unfamiliar and therefore seek to diminish it. But at what cost? Leaders who embrace and unlock diversity of all kinds will have a formidable competitive advantage. While in the near-term it seems hard, with a little practice, it can become second nature.