8 min read

What Is Cognitive Diversity In The Workplace?

Nikki Dale
Nikki Dale February 17, 2023
what is cognitive diversity in the workplace

Diversity in the workplace is an important consideration for HR and recruitment, and it can come in different versions - some of which are more obvious than others.

Protected characteristics and the diversity of a workforce might be considered the more obvious types of diversity; these are identifiable as things like gender, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation.

However, the less obvious type of diversity is cognitive diversity and it can be just as important in creating workplaces that are vibrant, creative, and productive. While cognitive diversity is perhaps not as high on the employability checklist, especially as it is not part of mandatory diversity and inclusion compliance, it does have some particular benefits that will make a stronger workforce.

What is cognitive diversity?

Cognitive diversity is as simple as it sounds - it is a term to describe the differences in the way that people think.

Cognitive diversity includes work styles, personality styles, and the way people prefer to learn. It can also cover the difference in thought between people who have had different lived experiences, through their cultural background or because they have had different educational backgrounds.

It can even mean neurodivergence, and the impact on people who might be on the Autism spectrum.

In a workplace, a diverse team can bring so many other experiences to the team, and cognitive diversity is an important part of that.

Why is cognitive diversity important?

what is cognitive diversity in the workplace

Hiring people with cognitive diversity in mind, as well as other types of diversity, is important for creating a culture of innovation and cooperation, with the lived experiences of the team becoming part of the development of ideas and the ways that problems are solved.

Having too many people who think in the same way, and tend to use the same tools to solve problems will stifle the development of new ideas, making stagnation a real problem and in fact stifling those who could bring vital change.

A workplace that does not have cognitive diversity is more likely to suffer from something that is described as ‘groupthink’ - a corporate phrase that means the same as the rather amusing yet fitting description from famous fantasy author Terry Pratchett: “the intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it”.

That colorful description is accurate, especially when it comes to a team - if everyone thinks the same way, an echo chamber is created, there are no new ideas because they go against the status quo, and subconscious cognitive bias always recognizes and then reinforces the ideas that are more similar to our own.

In this type of workplace, where there is no room for different thoughts, creative and innovative team members are more likely to stay quiet and protect the status quo, leaving problems unsolved and productivity slowed.

Examples of cognitive diversity

When considering cognitive diversity, there are several ways of describing it.

Diverse thinking in a person comes from their experience. This might include something cultural, from a different country, perhaps, where things are usually done in a different way.

It can also be as simple as educational background. A person who has completed a degree in a particular subject might have a theoretical approach to problem solving, while someone with hands-on experience in a role might offer another perspective.

Other examples of the origins of cognitive diversity include childhood experiences, personal identity, work experience, and even things like gender identity and nationality.

Benefits of cognitive diversity in the workplace

Diverse workplaces are the aim of most recruitment and HR teams, not only because it is something that they have to consider when hiring, but because it is well-recognized that a diverse and inclusive team is better in many ways.

Cognitive diversity has some very particular benefits too.

  • Better Engagement From Employees: The workplaces that offer more cognitive diversity as a standard seem to provide better engagement opportunities. Millennial staff is interested in the teamwork aspect of diversity, understanding that there are many inputs to be had in a truly collaborative environment. For the older generation, diversity means equity and fairness as well as civil rights - which means that a diverse workplace is a place where every opinion is fairly heard, and important in creating collaborative change.

  • Effective Problem-Solving: A team that can pivot and deal with change is one that can solve problems more effectively - and thinking outside the box can often be the catalyst for great ideas. A team that has cognitive diversity can offer specialized expertise on many levels thanks to all the different experiences of the team members. When this is utilized in the right way, new ideas and ways of dealing with problems will make a team more agile and able to deal with problems before they arise.

Aside from all this, for businesses that create products or solutions for customers, having a diverse team helps them to understand issues that their customers might face. It makes it easier for the company as a whole to consider other perspectives and different lived experiences so that there can be more understanding and better service delivery across all markets.

How to increase cognitive diversity in the workplace

cognitive diversity in the workplace

Increasing cognitive diversity can be done in several ways, with both employees already in position and through effective hiring policies.

To start with, recruiters should be focusing on hiring for skills and competencies, rather than focusing on education and qualifications. Sometimes taking on a candidate who has gained their skills (and can apply them) from other sources is more effective, and by using aptitude and soft skill testing, unconscious bias can be removed which means that only the most effective candidates are employed.

This can be augmented by looking for candidates who can add to the culture, rather than just those who can fit in with everyone else. Recruiters want to look for personalities that are able to question the status quo and not just ‘go along’ with the crowd.

The culture needs to be addressed too. New ideas and other perspectives will not flourish in a situation where alternative thinking is discouraged. This means that there has to be meeting spaces and open forums for criticisms and discussions to take place, with staff encouraged to think outside the box.

For employees, opportunities to be curious and learn more about different things will help to encourage and reward cognitive diversity. This might be continuous learning and development opportunities through the normal channels, or it might mean bringing in an external person with specific expertise to share experiences or lead a project.

However your business is approaching cognitive diversity, all-inclusive and equality processes will give a competitive advantage and can bring about real, positive change and innovation.

Can you test for cognitive diversity?

The short answer is yes, you can test for cognitive diversity.

While part of your recruitment strategy should be looking for the skills that are needed for the role - whether that be numeracy or coding - you can also use testing to look for alternative perspectives or different working behaviors.

Pre-employment screening is an effective tool to remove subconscious bias, giving equally qualified candidates the same opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and personality traits in a way that produces fair and quantifiable data.

For cognitive diversity, the best options for testing are situational judgement tests, and personality assessments.

In a situational judgement test, the candidate is provided with a fictional but realistic workplace scenario that describes a problem. Also provided is a selection of possible courses of action that could be used to solve the problem, and the candidate needs to choose the one that is most like the way that they would deal with it.

The answers that are given in the situational judgement test show how each candidate approaches a problem, how they react when under pressure, and how well they can communicate to solve problems.

In a personality questionnaire, different personality traits and work behaviors can be assessed through the answers given. Candidates are given a statement, and they need to decide how well they think that statement describes them using a rating system. Again, the way they answer will point to their thinking style, their personality, and the way they like to learn and develop.

Improving cognitive diversity doesn't have to be a complicated process when you have a plan (and the right tools) in place.

Nikki Dale
Nikki Dale February 17, 2023

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