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Using cognitive diversity to underpin inclusion

Dr John Mervyn-Smith

We’re familiar with diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) debates focusing on the likes of gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disabilities – but rarely is it discussed in the context of cognitive diversity. Yet it’s a crucial part of DEI, the freedom to speak ways that reflect the diversity of thought. Not having to censor thinking, to fit into what is perceived as a desirable corporate mould, means that individuality can flourish.

This is not just about individual freedoms, it’s about recognising that the diversity of thought can add value to the quality of debate and decision making in teams, groups and organisations.

The importance of cognitive diversity
We’re all well versed in the concept of “male, pale and stale”. Aside from the visual image the phrase conjures, it is also suggestive similarity in thinking. It sends a message to aspiring employees that diversity isn’t valued, and they need to look, think and behave in a certain way to make it to the top.

Yet the dangers of “group think” are well documented. Decisions aren’t interrogated, innovation is stifled, and conflict is avoided. It creates a breeding ground for poor performance, lack of accountability and disengagement.

Organisations that celebrate, and actively encourage, cognitive diversity, however, reap the benefits. Businesses are often more agile and creative, employees feel valued and empowered, and everyone can make an impact in their role (Ellemers and Rink, 2016 and Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, HBR.org)

Exploiting different proclivities

We all have preferred working styles and proclivities, or energy levels for certain tasks. Successful businesses, business leaders and managers, will recognise the importance of making informed business and people decisions that reflect a diverse range of views.

It’s the old adage: ‘if a team of five people all think the same way, then four of them are redundant’.

But recognising and exploiting cognitive diversity is not easy and, when it occurs, often degenerates into unhelpful conflicts that are framed as ‘clashes of personality’ between ‘opinionated people’.

Varying styles should complement each other but they also have the potential to clash. However, it’s the variation in style that is crucial to creating a cognitively rich and diverse workplace which we know makes good business sense – this, together with an understanding of what each person brings to the table is what helps teams and organisations succeed.

Our Organimetric, The GC Index®, describes an individual’s energy for impact, and this energy, in turns, reflects different ways of seeing the world; different ways of thinking about the world.

The GC Index proclivities are:

  • Game Changers, who see possibilities for a transformational future
  • Strategists, who map the future
  • Implementers, who build the future
  • Polishers, who create a future to be proud of and
  • Play Makers, who orchestrate the future.

It’s immediately apparent to see the valuable role each plays when it comes to their contribution to quality debate and decision making.

Game Changers are key to generating creative possibilities that others don’t see. But ideas by themselves ‘don’t win prizes’ in the world of business; they have to be acted upon. Enter the Strategists. They can complement Game Changers by evaluating the strategic relevance of ideas and possibilities and by bringing shape and focus to them that can lead to action. Implementers will then bring energy to delivering the plan with Polishers perfecting outputs and Play Makers facilitating collaboration and teamwork.

The GC Index® framework also highlights the fact that inclusion is not enough! It’s not enough to simply include someone with the hope that their differences will make the difference! People need to be involved in a way that helps them to make the contribution that’s needed. Understanding an individual’s potential contribution, in GC Index terms, provides the basis for that involvement.

Creating an environment for contribution
Understanding individual proclivities then, enables organisations to structure teams and tasks effectively to get the best out of employees. It allows everyone to make a positive impact and contribution. Working to their energy for impact, it sets people up for success and gives them the opportunity to ‘shine’.

Understanding people with reference to their proclivities also provides a common language for understanding and resolving conflict; the essence of robust debate and quality decision making.

Polishers, for example, can become frustrated when quality standards aren’t met. Knowing this can help colleagues to understand and be supportive rather than simply dismiss the individual as a critical or ‘picky’ personality.

And, of course, Polishers are exactly those individuals who are suited to those roles that require a focus upon continuous improvement and the ‘pursuit of excellence’.

Driving the inclusion agenda
Research shows, companies that prioritise true equality are often more financially successful and are viewed as more desirable places to work. McKinsey & Company carried out research that shows a correlation between being in the top quartile for diversity and financial outperformance.

But that does mean understanding what true equality means and actually embracing it, rather than just ticking what we consider to be the right boxes. A central area in DEI is cognitive diversity, one that is often overlooked, but it gives employees the freedom to unleash their true working styles.

By helping employees understand their own proclivities, and that of their colleagues, businesses can create a platform where everyone contributes. Understanding preferred working styles also encourages better working relationships and tolerance. It’s important that employees know their opinion and preferences are valued and respected, and that they don’t have to change their behaviour to receive preferential treatment. Companies that achieve this really thrive, as employees are energised and empowered to work to the best of their abilities.

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