Why Cognitive Diversity Will Make Your Team Stronger

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How many times have your teachers, professors and even bosses asked you to form your own teams to produce some output—whether it be a presentation, report or something more abstract?

I’ve been asked that question in practically every classroom and work setting since I was in kindergarten. And in spite of a lifetime of practice, my classmates, colleagues and I will generally pair up with the same types of people, every time. The people we choose to work with tend to be just like us. We gravitate toward each other because we share study habits, academic interests and professional ambitions. Who would be an easier teammate to work with than another version of us?

It’s true that it’s often more comfortable to stick with people and strengths we know. But comfort is not conducive to productivity and innovation. In order to achieve creative outputs, we need creative inputs: just as upstart Apple knew it needed to do to compete with powerhouse IBM, we need to “think different” in order to break through our own monotony and use our skills as complements, not parallels, to capitalize on the potential of group work.

Cognitive diversity, a fancy term for thinking differently, has an enormous, yet often overlooked impact on the speed, quality and creativity of a team’s output. In a 2017 study, business school researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis found that teams that were more cognitively diverse solved a complex problem more quickly than those comprised of people who thought more alike.

According to the psychiatrist and business consultant Peter Robertson, cognitive diversity comes down to how we approach change or face new situations. Using a simplified version of his model, we can measure our own strengths by seeing where we fall on these axes:

graph of expertise

How we tend to approach change depends on cognitive preferences we develop when we’re young—and they don’t depend on our education, culture and other social conditioning, say Reynolds and Lewis. Having high cognitive diversity “could generate accelerated learning and performance in the face of new, uncertain, and complex situations”—in other words, make our teams more productive, more creative and more effective.

Both as team leaders and team players, we need to actively work to create a cognitively diverse group. But cognitive diversity isn’t necessarily easy to spot. Like I’ve always done when assigned group projects, “colleagues gravitate toward the people who think and express themselves in a similar way,” leading to organizations with like-minded teams who struggle to think outside the box. Even people we deem as “change agents” tend to approach change in similar ways—so a team full of change agents likely will be less innovative than a team with people who bring different strengths to the table.

As leaders, we can facilitate the synergy of cognitive diversity by encouraging our teammates to play to their own strengths, especially if those strengths are the ones we often sacrifice in efforts to conform to our organization’s culture. To do so, we must create a culture where failure, difference and disagreement are celebrated—or, as Reynolds and Lewis put it, to “focus on enabling others to be themselves.”

Fostering cognitive diversity will make our teams more productive, our relationships stronger and our leadership more effective. Next time you’re asked to form your own groups, I encourage you to break away from comfort and seek out the people you’ve never worked with before; the odds are high that you’ll create something more powerful with people who think differently.

 

Source: Reynolds, Alison, and David Lewis. “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, 30 Mar. 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/03/teams-solve-problems-faster-when-theyre-more-cognitively-diverse.

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