Thankfully, diversity is becoming much more than a buzzword across many businesses. Over the past few years, companies are increasingly taking a microscope to their diversity and inclusion policies and procedures; finding they’re either not fit for purpose or in some cases pretty non-existent, and taking real action.

But what does a truly diverse business look like? One area of diversity which is trickier to get right – but is still vital, is cognitive diversity. The idea that the people sat round the table are not all approaching a problem with the same thought process, but instead introducing different ideas and problem-solving skills is hugely important in ensuring a forward-thinking business. However, this form of diversity is often overlooked.

What are the benefits?

Hiring in your own image, or within set (perhaps undefined) parameters doesn’t tend to breed innovation.

New and unexpected challenges facing a business can really be the time that cognitive diversity comes into its own. New challenges require new thinking. The pandemic is a very current example of an unprecedented global challenge impacting all businesses – innovative, out of the box thinking is required and it can be difficult to foster true innovation if everyone approaches the issue the same way. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has garnered praise for her swift handling of coronavirus and whilst her empathic approach might be at odds with other world leaders, approaching the crisis swiftly and decisively but still showing a very human side has meant New Zealand has dealt with the virus effectively and been praised globally for its different approach.

How to increase cognitive diversity

This type of diversity, whilst incredibly important, isn’t necessarily on businesses’ radar in the same way. It’s an invisible type of diversity and is often overlooked. Bias in a company is often unconscious and it can be difficult to recognise that similar personalities are regularly hired. Shaking things up to embrace different ways of thinking might seem unnecessary but research from Alison Reynolds and David Lewis in the Harvard Business Review shows it has true benefits. So how to change the status quo?

The key to increasing cognitive diversity is creating a culture of ‘psychological safety’. Many businesses feel that they have good cognitive diversity already in the business through their hiring process, but in this they are only tackling one small part of the issue. They may still have a workplace culture that doesn’t for different types of thinking. Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson has done huge amounts of work in this field, and put it aptly – “[psychological safety is] a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions or ideas”.

The theory is that when people don’t feel they can speak up, and keep ideas to themselves, it has disastrous consequences for a business. When people feel unable to voice their concerns and ideas, risks to the business get ignored, innovation stagnates and staff learning is compromised.

HR departments need to be comfortable speaking in terms of psychological safety and, eventually, need to encourage staff to foster a psychologically safe culture within the business. This is the only was to truly improve cognitive diversity. So, what are the benefits of psychological safety, and how can a psychologically safe environment be achieved?

Internal feedback

A business that lacks psychological safety ultimately has its head in the sand. When people feel unable to voice their concerns and ideas, risks to the business get ignored and things are more likely to go wrong. In an environment with good psychological safety, feedback loops are everywhere and are used frequently, because staff feel safe in airing their thoughts. This can be a crucial way for businesses to spot and address potential problems early.

Leading by example

Senior staff need to show that they are willing to embrace disagreements and encourage other employees within the business to contribute to discussions. Great modern leaders need to be inclusive and willing to learn, and also need to prioritise integrity. If leaders in a business exude these qualities and promote them in face-to-face interactions with other staff, a psychologically safe culture is much more likely spread, team relationships will improve and overall business efficiency will rise.

Positive team cultures

It’s important not to neglect the social side of a business. Fostering stronger social networks between employees drastically improves psychological safety, and a happy workforce leads to better efficiency. Team members who trust one another are much better able to work together and make sound strategic decisions. Regular team catchups, social ‘away days’, team-building exercises etc. are all important and should not be neglected on the premise that they aren’t ‘work’.

Setting priorities

Without good psychological safety, staff in a business will struggle to have open debates about where priorities in the business lie. Perhaps they are in the back office. Perhaps they are in the boardroom. Perhaps they lie with the customer. Debating priorities is an important part of a business striving for success. But, when psychological safety is low, debates can be negative and unproductive experiences. Comfortable teams in psychologically safe environments are much more likely to get their priorities right.

Regular face-to-face (virtual) sessions with employees from across the business can help encourage a more colligate, open culture. For managers, it’s also a good idea to brief more junior members of the team before big meetings to make sure they always have a speaking role and are confident with this. In the long-term, this will foster a more open culture, with employees more willing to speak up and challenge the status quo.

It’s not just about talking inclusively but also displaying it through actions too – these values should be reflected in the business decisions leaders take every day. Asking other’s opinions, consulting regularly with staff and showing a more vulnerable side can help with cognitive diversity. Rewarding staff for ‘tries’ as well as successes can help boost innovative thinking too as the stigma around failure is made smaller. Cognitive diversity might sound like the latest buzzword, but it’s a simple concept which, when recognised and engaged with, can deliver results.





Stuart Affleck is Director at Brook Graham from Pinsent Masons' Vario.