How to Harness the Power of Diversity of Thought at Work

HR leaders today recognize the importance of diversity of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orienta...

Posted by Berkshire on July 20 2021

HR leaders today recognize the importance of diversity of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation — but diversity is more than just those characteristics. It’s also about the different ways people think, perceive and approach challenges. This concept, known as diversity of thought, can help organizations foster creativity, collaboration and innovation in the workplace.

Explore the significance of diversity of thought and how to use diverse thinking to unlock innovation and drive organizational growth.

Cognitive Diversity: A Definition

Diversity of thought refers to the inclusion and integration of different perspectives, ideas, beliefs and thinking styles within a group or organization. Diversity of thought accompanies demographic diversity, which considers factors such as race, gender or age. Each of these facets of diversity can complement each other and inform a range of perspectives. Different cultural perspectives, for example, can influence how people think and react to problems. 

Diversity of thought, also called cognitive diversity, encompasses the unique cognitive approaches, experiences and knowledge that each team member brings to the table. Cognitive diversity also encompasses neurodiversity, a concept that recognizes and celebrates the natural variation in neurological functioning among individuals. 

Neurological differences such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia have traditionally been viewed as disabilities. However, neurodiversity emphasizes that these are variations of the human brain, rather than deficits or disorders.

Employers report that neurodiverse employees confer numerous benefits at work. “Over 80% reported hyperfocus, 78% creativity, 75% innovative thinking, 71% detail processing and 64% people being authentic at work,” according to research from the Research Centre for Neurodiversity at Work at Birkbeck, University of London. 

Diversity of thought recognizes that individuals have different ways of perceiving, analyzing and solving problems. Embracing diversity of thought can be a game-changer for organizational productivity. People who value different viewpoints will improve communication and collaboration with their teammates, regardless of thinking styles.

5 Benefits to Diverse Thinking at Work

5 Benefits of Diverse Thinking at Work

Introducing cognitive diversity to the workplace brings a multitude of benefits. By embracing individuals with different thinking styles, perspectives and problem-solving approaches, you improve your team’s thinking and decision-making. Cognitive diversity can encourage fresh insights, challenge groupthink and improve overall performance.

Here are several ways diverse perspectives and cognitive differences can benefit your business.

Enhanced Creativity and Innovation

Teams with different thinking styles benefit from a range of perspectives, experiences and ideas. This diversity of thought can stimulate creativity and innovation as employees become exposed to different ideas. When team members embrace this diversity, they generate a wider variety of approaches to problems. 

Diversity of thought enables teams to approach problem-solving more creatively and from multiple angles. Different perspectives and thinking styles can help diverse groups uncover blind spots and challenge assumptions. They can identify alternative solutions that homogeneous groups might overlook.

Any added likelihood of innovation matters to your business. A McKinsey survey found that 84% of CEOs believe innovation to be key to growth, but only 6% were satisfied with their company's current innovation. Increasing diversity of thought is one way to increase the likelihood of innovative ideas — and acceptance of those outside-the-box proposals.

Increased Adaptability and Agility

A diverse range of thinkers can help organizations adapt to change more effectively. Diverse teams contain a variety of skills, experiences and knowledge that inform a broader range of problem-solving approaches. This diversity of thought enables organizations to quickly adapt, especially during rapid change, emergencies and other unexpected circumstances.

Additionally, diverse teams are more likely to challenge the status quo and question established practices in constructive ways. This critical thinking and willingness to challenge norms can lead to more agile decision-making and the ability to skillfully pivot. 

Reduced Groupthink and Improved Decisions

Groupthink occurs when individuals within a group prioritize consensus and harmony over independent and diverse viewpoints. This can contribute to flawed decision-making, particularly during disruptive moments where the status quo is insufficient. Research cited in Harvard Business Review found that consensus-based problem-solving groups, which are highly prone to groupthink, tend to stifle innovation.

By contrast, teams that welcome diverse perspectives become more likely to question assumptions, consider alternative viewpoints and engage in constructive debate. This collaborative process helps to identify potential blind spots, unconscious biases and risks that homogeneous groups might overlook.

By fostering an environment that values diverse perspectives, you can avoid groupthink and make more informed decisions. Diverse teams can contribute a wider range of knowledge, experience and expertise to complex problems, leading to a comprehensive analysis of realistic options and potential outcomes. This diversity of thought allows for a thorough evaluation of the risks and benefits of each possible decision — and with less pressure to conform.

Increased Employee Engagement and Satisfaction

Inclusive environments contribute to a sense of belonging and psychological safety. Employees feel valued for their unique perspectives, which leads to increased engagement. Job satisfaction and retention increase because employees feel free to contribute ideas and feedback. Organizations that are inclusive of cognitive diversity are often positive work environments where people feel empowered to contribute their best effort and take part in workplace processes.

Additionally, diversity of thought makes it easier to create a culture of learning and collaboration, as employees are more likely to share their expertise and learn from each other. This collaborative, inclusive environment can foster camaraderie and teamwork, which also contributes to employee engagement and satisfaction.

Organizations that prioritize diversity and inclusion also tend to attract top talent. Retention gets easier, too, as your diverse employee base feels welcomed for who they are rather than how well they fit within a homogenous group. Workers are more likely to stay loyal to their employer when they see that their organization values diversity in all forms, including diversity of thought.

Improved Understanding of Customers and Markets

Diversity of thought helps organizations to better understand and connect with customer bases. Just as diverse thinking adds perspective and insight to decision-making, it also contributes to a deeper understanding of customer needs, preferences and behaviors. Assembling a team with diverse backgrounds and thinking styles can help you uncover unique market insights and identify untapped opportunities. 

Diverse teams can more easily challenge assumptions and biases that prevent innovation and optimal customer experiences. By considering a variety of perspectives, organizations are better equipped to develop cutting-edge products and services that delight customers and cater to a wider range of buyers.

7 Ways to Improve Thought Diversity at Work

7 Ways to Improve Thought Diversity at Work

Improving thought diversity at work requires a deliberate and inclusive approach. By hiring people and encouraging them to bring their full selves to work, you can create an environment that celebrates and benefits from cognitive diversity.

Here are best practices to foster a culture of diverse thinking.

Foster an Inclusive Culture

HR leaders should promote and cultivate an inclusive company culture that values and respects diverse perspectives. One way to achieve this is through training programs, workshops and initiatives that raise awareness about cognitive diversity and its importance. 

HR leaders should work with other leaders in an organization to create an environment that encourages open communication and feedback. Use team meetings, town halls and anonymous feedback channels to solicit employee insights. Employees will be more likely to share constructive thoughts and ideas when they don’t fear retribution or rejection.

Creating safe spaces for open dialogue can encourage employees to share their perspectives and experiences, even when they differ from tradition. By actively listening to employee feedback and addressing concerns or issues, you can help all employees feel valued, respected and included.

Conduct regular surveys to gauge employee perceptions of inclusivity within the organization. McKinsey’s model for measuring inclusion covers two key elements: personal experience and enterprise perception. Ask questions related to feelings of belonging and authenticity (to gauge personal experience) and systems that facilitate acceptance and fairness (to assess perception). 

Analyze the survey results to identify trends and areas for improvement. 

Review and Revise Hiring Practices

HR leaders can review hiring practices to ensure they’re attracting a wide range of candidates, including a diversity of thinking styles. Measure the current state of cognitive diversity at work, and set goals for increasing it through hiring. 

Examine the language and requirements used in job postings. Ask whether they are inclusive and whether they inadvertently exclude certain groups. 

Expand your recruitment efforts to reach a wider pool of candidates by looking beyond standard channels. Job fairs, diverse job boards and partnerships with organizations that focus on diversity and inclusion are just a few examples.

Update hiring processes to account for barriers to cognitive diversity, too. The interview process can be particularly daunting for people on the autism spectrum, for example, which may lead to underperformance in a traditional interview setting. To overcome this challenge, hiring managers can substitute tests that measure job-related skills. If you’re assessing a candidate for a coding position, for example, a test assignment that reflects the types of challenges they’ll encounter in the role can provide a better glimpse into their potential success — giving you a better, fairer sense of how a job candidate might actually perform. When using tests or other assessments they should be evaluated for validity and reliability.  

Asking candidates to self-disclose neurodivergence allows you to track cognitive diversity throughout the hiring process. Assure the candidate that this disclosure will not negatively impact consideration for the positions applied for.  

Implement Diversity Training

HR leaders can provide diversity training programs to employees at all levels. These programs can help individuals understand the value of diversity in all forms, including diversity of thought. Effective training not only challenges biases but also helps employees and develop skills for effective collaboration and outreach. 

Neurodiversity training, for example, can help promote understanding, acceptance and inclusion of individuals with diverse neurological conditions, such as autism, ADHD or dyslexia.

Learning more about other facets of diversity, such as different cultural backgrounds, can help employees regularly explore new knowledge and perspectives. HR leaders can provide continuous learning resources in this and other relevant areas.

Evaluate the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion training programs. Employee engagement with training courses can tell you whether the workforce is using learning materials. Assess the state of inclusion (such as through engagement levels or open-ended survey responses) before and after implementing diversity training to gauge whether training has effectively influenced behaviors.

Encourage Collaboration

HR leaders can encourage cross-functional collaboration and diverse team assignments. By intentionally mixing individuals with different backgrounds, skills and perspectives, leaders can foster a culture of collaboration and encourage the exchange of different ideas. 

Consider how opportunities to cross-train can help expose employees to different thought processes. The work of engineers might require different thought processes and perspectives than that of salespeople, and vice versa. Cross-functional project teams are just one way to promote collaboration across job types and thinking styles — and participants can apply what they learn when they return to their teams.

Compare the success rates of siloed projects and teams versus collaborative and cross-functional teams. Does performance against goals improve when employees regularly get to work across teams and departments, gaining exposure to new ideas and ways of working?

Establish Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs

HR leaders can establish mentorship and sponsorship programs to support employees with diverse thinking styles and reinforce the importance of diverse opinions. Mentors help employees identify their career goals and create plans to reach them, while sponsors actively create opportunities to elevate employees from marginalized groups.

Start by identifying potential mentors and sponsors within the organization, especially those with experience and expertise in working with diverse thinking styles. Match them with employees who would most benefit from their guidance and support. Schedule regular check-ins and feedback sessions to make sure that the mentorship or sponsorship is effective and beneficial for both parties.

Mentorship and sponsorship programs have been proven to help employees grow — and to feel like they’re advancing. Gallup reports that “employees with formal mentors and sponsors are more likely (75% and 97%, respectively) to strongly agree their organization provides a clear plan for their career development.” 

Survey program participants to find out how effective employees find it to be. Measure changes in cognitive diversity representation in promotions and leadership roles over time.

Measure and Track Progress

Establish metrics so you can track your progress in promoting diversity of thought. Start by establishing baseline data on the existing diversity of thought within the organization. Employee surveys and self-identification forms can help HR teams gather this initial data. From there, set specific goals for improvement, along with a timeline.

As this effort unfolds, analyze data that comes in on employee engagement, retention and promotion rates. These and other DEI analytics can help you identify disparities or areas for improvement, as well as where diversity of thought is strong and growing. High turnover rates within specific demographics, for instance, may indicate issues with inclusivity and a need for improvement. 

Conduct regular diversity and inclusion audits to assess the effectiveness of initiatives and identify gaps or barriers. Measuring success in fostering a culture that drives diversity of thought is an ongoing process. Return to your goals to assess your progress. Regularly review and analyze metrics to help identify areas for improvement and guide the organization's efforts to create a more inclusive workplace.

Tracking the usage and effectiveness of accommodations provided to neurodivergent employees can be a useful metric. This includes accommodations like flexible schedules, assistive technologies, or adjustments to the work environment. Analyze how frequently these accommodations are used and their impact on performance and feelings of belonging.

Lead By Example

HR leaders should lead by example and demonstrate their commitment to diversity of thought. By actively seeking diverse perspectives, engaging in dialogue and making inclusive decisions, HR leaders set the tone and inspire others to embrace diversity of thought.

Supporting Diversity of Thought at Work

When organizations embrace every employee’s unique perspectives, experiences and cognitive approaches, they can improve engagement, unlock innovation, drive collaboration and achieve breakthrough business results.

HR leaders play a crucial role in creating an inclusive environment that fosters diverse thinking styles, enabling teams to tap into the full potential of their collective intelligence. By embracing diversity of thought in the workplace, you can truly unleash the power of your workforce and build a brighter and better future.


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