Cognitive Diversity: Styles and Strengths

The case for diversity in the workplace is nothing new. However, when most of us hear the word diversity, we automatically distinguish identities in terms of race, gender, and age.  The role of cognitive diversity, the differences in our thought and problem-solving processes, is rarely considered.

five diverse business team members standing and smiling Have you ever noticed that it is easier to work with some people than with others? Do you find yourself gravitating toward certain kinds of people in your personal life?  You may notice that some of your favorite co-workers, personal friends or mentors represent a broad spectrum of human variety, and don’t necessarily fit into a single age, race, or gender category. So what is the common thread?

Typically, we enjoy working and communicating with people who think like we do.  Not only do we share common opinions, but the process in which we receive, evaluate, and arrive at decisions is similar. It can often be frustrating to collaborate with those who not only share different perspectives, but different problem-solving methods altogether. These differences can create conflict at work.

In the workplace, these situations can challenge even the most open-minded team members. The first step to overcoming these challenges – and benefiting from the advantages of cognitive diversity – is to recognize your own thought-process style. The best way to uncover your personal style is to notice how you think and work when you are alone.

Dr. Michael Kirton suggested that most people fall somewhere on a spectrum of two poles: Adaptive and Innovative.  Adapters tend to accept problems as defined, seek early and easily-implemented solutions, and appreciate rules and consensus. Innovators, on the other hand, tend to reject the common perceptions of problems and redefine them, they seem less-interested in quick-fixes, and prefer to focus on long-term solutions. They are less influenced by rules or common opinion, and offer multiple solutions to problems that often require fundamental changes to the status quo.

An oversimplified analogy could be that adapters tend to reach for Band-Aids while innovators search for significant lifestyle changes.

Both approaches have their place. When in the throes of an active project, when forward motion is critical, adapters are invaluable tools which can nimbly meet obstacles with efficient solutions that keep the project rolling correctly, and on schedule. The middle or near-end of a project is not the time to abandon strategy and start over.

However, once a project is successfully completed, Innovators are essential in evaluation and finding long-term solutions.  Looking to core areas of opportunity and offering solutions that require significant change to key processes are critical to longevity of an organization. You don’t want an ongoing policy built on Band Aids.

Interestingly, while most people fall more in the middle of these categories, the extremes on each side view those in the middle differently. For example, If person A is 100% Innovative, Person B is 100% Adaptive, and Person C is right in the middle at 50% of each – then the Innovator will see Person C as Adaptive, and The Adaptor will see Person C as Innovative. That is why it is important to know where you personally fall on the line so you can help temper your own internal biases and behavioral associations.

These automatic, instinctual associations are referred to by Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, as Associative Barriers.  Because while some associations can be valid and helpful, when it comes to creativity and innovation, they just stand in the way of greatness.

It is the task of the individual (and the effective leader) to identify associative barriers, problem-solving approaches, and personal strengths to draw the most out of a team effort.

When recognized and properly exploited, cognitive diversity is no longer a point of tension, but the greatest asset to a team.