Great Minds Think Differently – Creating Cognitive Diversity

November 11th, 2020 | 7 minute read

2020 has brought a lot of conversation to the forefront about equality and diversity. This post isn’t about ethics, we all know the ethical stance for creating an inclusive and diverse workplace, and that should be a given in any business. This post is about a different viewpoint on diversity – specifically around cognitive diversity. 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. One point on this should be noted, your ultimate goal with cognitive diversity is to couple this with true diversity (gender, race, age, religion, disability, etc). Some businesses are now using cognitive diversity to get around real diversity challenges at board level, you can only achieve the full benefit when you combine your diversity and inclusion efforts.


The old saying goes “great minds think alike”, but for real business impact you should be focussing on “great minds think differently.”

So why is cognitive diversity important to explore?

  • Cognitively diverse teams are more likely to solve a problem than non-diverse teams, according to an experiment run by the Harvard Business Review.
  • Deloitte report found that diversity, both cognitively and demographically, elevates creativity and enhances innovation by over 20%.
  • Gartner predicts that by 2022, 75% of organisations with diversity in their leadership team and decision-makers will exceed their financial targets.
  • In 2019, IBM announced its effort to embrace neurodiversity by hiring high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The company shared “Neurodiverse people approach problems differently and have to think harder to get around what the rest of us accept.”

Statistics or No Statistics

You don’t need complex diversity statistics to judge how cognitively diverse your business is. Looking at your leadership team as yourself:

“Does everyone look and think the same way?”

How closely those in your senior leadership look and think alike, will impact how diverse your leadership thinking is. Take for example a room full of people that are mostly white, mostly male and mostly middle class – how much diversity of thinking happens in that room? We can only expand our thinking so far – if something never occurs to you – you can’t change it.

Measuring statistics can sometimes have the reverse impact, if you target 30% women or 20% racial balance you can end up recruiting for tokens and numbers without ever having to change anything at a belief or values level. This will often drive only short term results that don’t change long term.

The key with true cognitive diversity, and diversity at any level, is to change the way people think, and address thinking at a belief and value level. When you do this you will notice a significant shift in the way people in your business talk, ideate and work, no statistics required.


Inattention Blindness

Inattention blindness happens when we focus so hard on one thing, that we completely miss the other things that are happening around this. This video sums up this thinking perfectly.

A homogenous team will tend to focus hard on the same things, and be blind to the same opportunities. Diverse teams miss less because each individual has different blind spots, so collectively they see more.

More diverse workplace with more varied opinions, backgrounds, decision making processes and experience can ultimately make your business more successful, as well as a more interesting and inclusive place to work.

An example of a leader who addressed this is Mike Gamson, the former Senior VP for LinkedIn Global Solutions. In her book, Michelle King, the Head of Diversity at Netflix, talks about interviewing Mike and his realisation that inattention blindness was impacting his view of the workplace, from a white, male peresptive, in her book The Fix.

“If you had stopped me five years ago and asked “Mike, do you think you are doing everything you can to help the company be more successful?” I would have told you unequiviclly, “Yes I am doing everything I can.” I was blind to what I was not yet doing. I became one of those guys who unconsciously hired people who looked and spoke and sounded a lot like me.” 

King goes on to describe Mike’s actions following on from this where he engaged his team in discussions to find out how they experience the culture of the organisation in different ways, it really drew his attention to the elements he had been missing.

“I used to think the world is fair. That it was a metiocracy. I no longer believe that. I think people who think it is an even playing field are probably like me – they have had it easy their whole life. They are probably a guy, they may be white, and they have likely been in the majority their whole life and they assume that it is like that for everyone else.”

From the work, Mike integrated a solution called “acts of inclusion” into his team environment where team members made conscious acts to understand each other. Some ideas of ways you can integrate this into your team could be:

  • Start a book club that helps educate your whole team on different diversity challenges and viewpoints, books could include Michelle King’s “The Fix”, “How to Be An Anti-Racist” by Ibram X Kendi, “Invisible Women” by Caroline Cirado Perez, “So You Want To Talk About Race?” by Ijeoma Oluo. This post also has some other useful books for leaders to stimulate team discussion.
  • Look at an internal committee like a our “Culture Club” that we integrate into our clients businesses that help provide a voice for team members across the business and do focus group activities and deep dives into how everyone experiences the workplace differently.
  • Have discussions with minority colleagues who you know well to share their stories about any discrimination they have experienced and be open and engaged with learning how your privilege may come into play with their experiences.

We work with businesses on creating diversity and inclusion programmes that are completely bespoke to their workplace culture and leadership. To find out more about the work we do, please reach out, we would love to talk to you. 



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