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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
In my previous Forbes article, I discussed how leaders could improve the cognitive diversity of their teams to innovate while adapting to new and complex circumstances. I put these ideas into practice during the pandemic when my university adjusted to schedule and work environment disruptions while navigating challenges never before experienced. When COVID restrictions made on-campus education impossible, I had to quickly assign new responsibilities to my faculty, staff and employees.
In theory, building a team with a broad range of diverse thinkers to process complex information and solve problems should have brought about next-level insights and understanding. Different cultural backgrounds, education levels, personality types and life experiences make these groups uniquely qualified to tackle complex issues, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
A Harvard Business Review study did demonstrate that teams with greater cognitive diversity solve problems three times faster than ones that think similarly. However, it also confirmed that cognitive diversity is invisible: employees of different genders, ages and ethnicities could still be homogeneous regarding how they engage and think about change. And recruiting practices can reinforce an organization’s lack of cognitive diversity: while we may recognize the importance of cognitive diversity in theory, in practice, we often recruit those who think like us, resulting in a homogenous organizational culture. Furthermore, simply having a group of different-thinking employees is not enough to bring about positive change. Instead, leaders must build the integrative capacity of such groups for success.
A team’s integrative capacity refers to its ability to work across disciplinary, professional and organizational divides to generate new knowledge. What are some ways a leader can build the integrative capacity of their team? The key first step is to cultivate an organizational environment where different perspectives are valued, and everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas, even controversial ones.
Here are a few other ideas to keep front of mind when looking to build the integrative capacity of cognitively diverse groups for optimal results in business.
- Set clear goals to further organizational progress.
When harnessed effectively, a team with diverse perspectives, skills and backgrounds can devise creative solutions that no individual could have arrived at on their own. Therefore, explicitly stating the goals for the team is essential when working to solve complex problems. Different team members may have competing perspectives on what they believe should be accomplished. Clearly stating expectations serves to identify a common goal the team can then focus on when reaching for an optimal outcome.
- Establish social networks, especially for remote teams.
When a group of different-thinking employees retreats to home offices, completing projects together can become even more difficult. As today’s collaboration space increasingly becomes remote, research has shown that dispersed teams experience added challenges. Working across time zones can further limit a team’s ability to integrate knowledge. Therefore, groups that choose to work remotely must invest in greater collaboration and trust-building to accomplish their goals.
Teams that find ways to establish strong social networks will see improved cohesion, which leads to enhanced knowledge sharing. Trust increases when teams successfully collaborate. Solid social bonds among team members can also lessen conflict from clashing perspectives and serve as the “glue” that keep the team focused on achieving goals.
- Facilitate discussion and debate to open lines of communication.
A group determined to work well together can move mountains. Lively debate and discussions can inspire employees to find innovative solutions and new ways of tackling problems. The key is maintaining a respectful and open-minded attitude toward each other and remaining considerate when listening to different points of view.
For a debate to be successful, all participants must have the space and opportunity to contribute meaningfully. While it can be challenging to find common ground when bringing people with different cognitive styles together, several strategies work well to encourage productive and healthy discussions and debates:
- Set ground rules to facilitate healthy communication, mutual respect and consideration, and to ensure that all voices are heard.
- Encourage everyone in the group to ask questions and seek clarification.
- Remind everyone to remain civil when airing differing viewpoints.
- Stress the importance of considering multiple perspectives when formulating opinions.
- Remind everyone to be mindful of cognitive biases.
By encouraging different-thinking employees to engage in structured, respectful disagreements and discussions, businesses can create an environment where everyone can engage meaningfully and new ideas can take root.
- Embrace conflict.
Many people see conflict as a negative, something to be avoided at all costs. However, healthy discord can add energy and positively impact how a cognitively diverse group functions. Conflict can be a powerful driver of creativity and innovation if managed effectively. Employees grow when they navigate their differences and can build trust and understanding as a cognitively diverse group working toward the same goals.
When team members are willing to engage in open and honest dialogue, they can learn from one another and develop creative solutions that take everyone’s needs into account. Although conflict can be challenging to deal with, as long as it occurs in an atmosphere of mutual respect, it can expand minds and offer new insights.
Leaders who establish structures to build the knowledge integration capability of cognitively diverse groups will reap the benefits in innovation.
Employees who view the world from a different angle or obstacles through an alternative lens can bring fresh perspectives and ideas to the workplace. By harnessing the unique talents of these employees as part of a team, organizations can become more innovative and better able to meet the needs of a rapidly changing global marketplace.