Image courtesy of Getty.
Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
Many conversations are happening these days on the value of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workforce. However, I’ve found much of the current emphasis on DEI efforts hardly touches on the value of cognitive diversity. Janine Schindler, MCC writes that “cognitive diversity is the inclusion of people who have different ways of thinking, different viewpoints and different skill sets in a team or business group.” Cognitive diversity refers to how people create and apply knowledge or how people prefer to use their personal knowledge or build on the expertise of others when facing new situations.
The foundation of any organization is its core values. An organization’s core values dictate the behaviors valued at the organization and serve to attract talented employees while encouraging them to excel in their careers. Today’s leaders would do well to hire and retain individuals who think differently and balance out the organization—promoting a safeguard against harmful groupthink.
In today’s rapidly changing world, organizations must be able to adapt and innovate to survive. Diversity of thought, experience and perspective can lead to greater creativity and the ability to see problems from multiple angles. Here are five things leaders should keep in mind when building a team strong in cognitive diversity:
1. Lead with a spirit of humility.
Sometimes decades of expertise can undermine our ability to make room for the valuable point of view of other, maybe even less experienced, team members. Not falling prey to cognitive entrenchment is crucial for leaders to sidestep blind spots and avoid bias.
Humble leaders have no issues acknowledging that they do not have all the answers. Those who ask for help, apologize for missteps and learn from others gain the confidence to take their organizations to the next level. Leaders in all fields must accept input and constructive criticism from their team to experience growth. Also, acknowledge dissenting views and incorporate them into your thinking process to avoid disagreements and stop tension from escalating into arguments and resentment.
The more significant industry expertise a leader has, the more they must remain flexible and willing to adapt to change and new ideas that may challenge the norm. Sometimes, needing to unlearn things is called for when uncertain over rapidly evolving change.
2. Hire for innovation.
Seeking team members who challenge the status quo, push boundaries and think differently can foster a culture of innovation—team innovation benefits from each member’s individual intellectual curiosity. As I wrote about in Knowledge Management: Systems and Processes, tacit to tacit knowledge exchanges among members in a group facilitate the synthesis of knowledge across individuals and the integration of multiple streams to create new knowledge, usually through joint activities. Teams that include members with diverging views may seem counterintuitive to growing team trust, but it is essential not to confuse healthy debate with toxic conflict. Innovation can flourish during open-forum discussions touching on different perspectives and experiences.
3. Practice active listening.
While the answer to a concern may already be on the tip of our tongue, holding back from sharing your expertise and listening to the varied opinions of your team is wise leadership. Brilliant ideas often arise from team members who disclose crucial insights while bringing forward a perspective that initially seemed off the mark. For this reason alone, active listening can lead to unexpected and innovative solutions.
When team members feel heard, I’ve found they are more likely to trust their leader and stay open to new ideas raised by others. By practicing active listening, leaders can encourage innovation and diversity within their teams. Leaders can also identify potential obstacles or issues and find solutions before they become too big.
4. Create space for everyone at the table.
A roundtable effort allows everyone to speak their minds while significantly reducing polarization within the group. It enables everyone to feel like they are a part of the process and can contribute to the outcome. Resisting the need to surround ourselves with people who think, feel and believe the same things we do may lead to great things happening. Novel solutions can arise when people engage in thoughtful discussions and remain open-minded about the unique perspectives of others. When colleagues challenge their thinking and others within the group, creative thinking often leads to innovation. Cognitive diversity can also lead to idea-generating critical debates.
As leaders, we are responsible for making sure our teams form perspectives based on science and facts, not just opinions. Building on the work and research of others must be encouraged—a healthy exchange of views grounded in factual knowledge and cited research is crucial to making progress as a team.
5. Instill a culture of understanding that missteps may happen.
Leaders open and receptive to a team member bold enough to raise their hand and question existing strategies can benefit significantly from a shake-up in perspectives. At the same time, the team must be on hand to collaboratively resolve the problems and missteps if they arise. When team members feel comfortable raising their hands and questioning their leader or peers, it shows trust and respect. Leaders who are open to these questions can benefit from the fresh perspective and innovative ideas team members bring to the table. Innovation happens when we stay open to hearing what others think, testing it against our views and creating something beyond what we expected. Growth happens when the focus is on generating new and unexpected ideas rather than finding the correct answer to a set problem.
Innovation is an individual’s or group’s ability to come up with something new. In my experience, the best teams are made up of people with both specialized and generalized knowledge because they can combine what they know into fresh insights that neither would have come up with on their own.
Great leaders bring everyone to the table to hear varied opinions in a nonjudgmental and supportive environment. Once everyone offers input, they can synthesize the ideas and feedback in ways not previously considered. In doing so, diversity and trust become mutually reinforcing elements within an organization’s culture.