Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is at the forefront of almost every discussion around corporate culture and people strategy. And for good reason — the lack of diverse representation in the workforce is a critical issue that spans all industries and levels of leadership.
As your organization works to address these inequities, it’s critical to consider all types of diversity as part of your greater DEI strategy. An essential, but sometimes overlooked piece of the puzzle is cognitive diversity, also known as diversity of thought. It influences the way your employees collaborate and your organization’s ability to innovate.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the meaning of cognitive diversity, why it’s important and how to facilitate its growth at your company.
What is cognitive diversity?
Cognitive diversity means including a variety of people with different thought patterns, ideas, problem-solving methods and mental perspectives. This means hiring for culture-add rather than culture-fit, with special attention paid to the unique ways in which an individual approaches and succeeds at the tasks assigned to their role.
It encompasses trained ways of thinking learned from past education or schooling experience in addition to other types of formal training. Cognitive diversity can also include culturally-acquired ways of thinking resulting from lived experiences in various racial, class or regional communities. More on this next.
Examples of cognitive diversity in the workplace
Here are some examples of what cognitive diversity at work can look like:
Learned cognitive strategies include how and where individuals have acquired their unique skills and abilities. A team that's cognitively diverse includes individuals from a variety of educational backgrounds. For example, a software engineer that completed a coding boot camp might bring a different way of problem-solving to the table from a colleague that graduated from a four-year university.
Different cultural backgrounds facilitate different ways of thinking. Having cultural diversity naturally creates a cognitively diverse workforce as different individuals will have different cultural perspectives and lived experiences. For example, an individual that comes from an international background brings a perspective reflective of their cultural experiences that’s unique from other colleagues.
Put simply, almost any experience or form of identity that distinguishes one individual from another contributes to diversity of thought. It’s fueled by individuals from different races, gender identities, nationalities and more.
The importance of cognitive diversity in the workplace
Simply put: diversity of thought leads to more innovative decision-making. The better your business is at innovating, the more primed it is for growth.
One study from the Harvard Business Review demonstrated that teams with greater thought diversity were able to solve problems up to 3 times faster than teams populated by like-minded individuals. Similarly, a Deloitte study found that cognitively diverse teams can boost innovation by upwards of 20 percent.
For a business, having a cognitively diverse workforce means problems get resolved faster, processes are made more efficient and your workforce can adapt more easily to change and disruption.
How cognitive diversity contributes to company culture
A common theme emerging from various workplace diversity studies is that people tend to gravitate toward others that look, act and think like themselves. This is a form of unconscious bias that can lead to a homogenous working environment — encouraging “groupthink” and deterring individuals with differing opinions or ideas from speaking up. A workplace culture like this can mean lack of innovation and low employee morale.
Conversely, encouraging and hiring for cognitive diversity boosts employee engagement by creating safe spaces in which out-of-the-box ideas are allowed to emerge. Cognitive diversity also facilitates empathy among colleagues and paves the way for a more collaborative and inclusive culture.
How to foster cognitive diversity in the workplace
Here are a few strategies you can engage to enable and promote cognitive diversity within your organization:
- Hire for skills and competencies
When you include specific degree or education requirements in job postings, it instantly limits the number of job candidates you have access to. These people may have all of the skills and experience necessary to do the job, but their educational background keeps them from being considered. Taking a skills-based approach to hiring gives you access to a wider pool of talent, which naturally enhances your chances of finding candidates from diverse backgrounds.
- Look for candidates that are a culture add, not a culture fit
Consider hiring job candidates that are a culture add, instead of a culture fit. This means looking for talent that brings in a fresh perspective, instead of people who share similar ideas as the employees already on the team. A culture add is a job candidate that isn’t afraid to ask hard questions or scrutinize existing practices — after all, this is how some of the most innovative ideas come to life.
- Provide employees with continuous learning opportunities
Continuous learning is the fuel that keeps your employees constantly innovating, problem-solving and developing new ways of thought. Evaluate your current employee education and learning programs through this lens. Are you providing learning options that foster diverse thinking?
- Create a safe working environment that allows cognitive diversity to flourish
To achieve true cognitive diversity in the workplace, it has to be authentically integrated into all aspects of company culture. Employees should feel free and safe to share ideas, criticisms and suggestions for alternate routes. In practice, this means providing meeting spaces or open forums where employees feel comfortable speaking up and are encouraged to think outside the norm.
- Seek external expertise and training
Cognitive diversity doesn’t always need to come from within your company. Consider bringing in outside experts to facilitate workshops or projects that help facilitate innovative thinking within your organization. Diversity of thought acts as a competitive advantage for many businesses, allowing them to be flexible, innovative and in a state of accelerated growth. With this in mind, take a look at your existing DEI efforts and evaluate where cognitive diversity should fit into the picture.