Say the word ‘diversity’ to many managers and quite reasonably most will talk about of equality of opportunity for women, or ethnic minorities, or any group that is under-represented in the workplace.

Only a minority will think that you’re talking about cognitive diversity; the different ways in which people think; as a precursor to developing dynamic and creative teams.

So take five minutes to think about diversity of style, capabilities, viewpoint as another dimension to the individual characteristics often referenced in matters of inclusion and diversity. 

‘Most people find it easy to work with people who think like them and challenging to work with people who do not think like them’

We may recognise the value in individual differences, but can we provide an appropriate leadership style to cope?

Cognitive diversity is about the different ways people think, make decisions, solve problems, approach their work, assimilate information and of course learn.

Why is this 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 prevents ‘clone’ syndrome like attracts like – many managers could be tempted to recruit or want to work with like-minded people; but the end 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 you’re 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?

Cognition has been studied across a wide range of disciplines and in other ‘Five Minutes on…’ we have talked about creativity and its different forms.

Here we consider just three of many models you may have come across, as a reminder of the diverse nature of the team you might lead or want to assemble. (NB: we know these are very simplified versions of the body of work under each heading).

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 from 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 (NLP), 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 particular 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

At the risk of categorising people, do thinking style lead us to considering their team roles and the work of Dr Meredith Beblin? There can’t be many managers reading this piece without coming across his nine team roles. If not have a look here: – or almost any text-book on organisational theory.

New to you? Get in touch – happy to tell you more.

Cognitive diversity is complex. The consolation is that at least you’re working with people who think!

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