Say the word ‘diversity’ to many managers or their employees and most will think of equality of opportunity for disadvantaged groups. Primarily for women, or ethnic minorities, or those with a disability. Few will think that you are talking about cognitive diversity – i.e. the blend of working styles.

Here is a different take on diversity; of thinking style, not of a protected characteristic as recognised by UK equal opportunities legislation.

Could you explain ‘cognitive’?
‘Cognitive diversity’ simply put is the different ways in which people: –

  • think
  • make decisions
  • solve problems
  • approach their work
  • assimilate information

Why is it needed?
Many companies positively try to promote such ‘style’ diversity because it sparks innovation. Different people bringing their different thought processes to bear on a problem will rub against each other and clash and challenge each other to create a new idea.

It is another facet of diversity, often overlooked, when considering the composition of the workforce.

It prevents ‘clone’ syndrome
Like attracts like; many managers could be tempted to recruit or want to work with like-minded people; but the result is just ‘more of the same’

It covers all bases
Different thinking styles will be needed for different kinds (and stages) of work; let’s say that at present your team’s focus is project planning: you’ll need an analytical planner type, some will attention to detail; but, once the project’ complete, let’s say your asked to go to work on a new product idea, then you’ll need the ideas people, the lateral thinkers, not the duck liners

Can we see examples?

  • left-brain vs right-brain thinkers
    • the most widely recognised difference in thinking styles; left-brain thinkers will typically take a more analytical, logical and sequential approach to problem solving; right -; brained thinkers take a more intuitive ‘gut feel’ approach
  • abstract vs experiential thinkers
    • an abstract thinker will, for instance, assimilate information form a variety of sources e.g. books, reports, conversations, and prefer to learn about something rather than experience it directly; experiential people, in contrast, get information from interacting directly with people and things
  • ‘chunk up’ vs ‘chunk down’ thinkers
    • from the thinking behind neuro-linguistic programming, people who ‘chunk up’ tend to want and need to see the big picture; ‘chunk downers’ break problems down into detail

How should we manage them?
Now aware of the potential minefield that combining thinking styles could be, how best to manage them: –

  • create whole-brained teams: don’t let the team or company culture become dominated by one thinking or cognitive style; it may make you too inflexible to cope with any changing demands later on
  • don’t force conflict if it’s not needed: deliberately putting people into situations where their thinking styles will clash is only advisable if it is necessary, e.g. to brainstorm new ideas; if the task does not require it, e.g. producing a cost breakdown, then why do it?
  • have them acknowledge their differences: if they’re not aware of the differences, all they’ll see is that they’re fighting, and won’t understand why, or what to do about it
  • don’t treat people the way you want to be treated: tailor communications to the receiver instead of the sender; be aware that, in a team of ten people, you may actually need to say the same thing ten different ways
  • de-personalise it: talk about their different approaches to work, not the different individuals
  • remember no one style is better than another: each brings a unique perspective, and each will be needed at different times

There is a considerable body of research dealing with this matter. Some mechanistic outcomes are psychometric tests that attempt to quantify these cognitive differences. Sometimes they are used to maintain the clone effect by creating a template for a company or role type. Back to the homogeneous workforce. It might be multicultural (the workforce)  in one sense but hardly different if they all share the same cognitive attributes.

Cognitive diversity needs to be recognised and considered when recruiting and developing a workforce. Diversity is an important and complex aspect of the employment landscape.

The consolation is that at least you’re working with people who think.