‘We knew the diversity of thought was better when people on a team might not appear to have any commonality’

April 17, 2023

This month, The Loop’s editor Ab Banerjee sat down with SHRM Chief Human Resources Officer Jim Link to discuss why cognitive diversity has become a hot-button issue and how ViewsHub plans to help organizations measure and improve it…

So Jim, the whole concept of diversity has been getting a lot of attention in the last few years, but one area that hasn’t had as much is cognitive diversity. When we discuss cognitive diversity, what do we actually mean by it, and how can it help create high-performing teams and drive productivity and performance?

My view is that there are several terms that are floating around today that mean the same thing. There’s cognitive diversity but another one, which I’m hearing more of these days, is neurodiversity. Those terms are being used synonymously in organizations, but my view is that they are the same and we should talk about them as being the same. 

The core of this lens of diversity is including individuals who approach a problem or task with what I like to think of as unique resolution techniques. Some people describe that as different thought patterns, or ideas, or problem-solving capabilities, or even different perspectives on a task or a project. I like the idea that they have a unique way to resolve issues and concerns. 

The bigger issue I think employers must think about for the future is the change management that’s going to be required with managers and leaders to understand how to actually help these individuals be successful in current workplaces. Now that we have identified that there’s value, contribution, even enhanced performance that an organization can gain from sorting and sourcing individuals with these skills and capabilities, the next step in my mind is thinking about maximizing that opportunity for the benefit of that person and the business.

Trying to figure out the different styles of thinking and resolving issues is definitely a powerful way of thinking about it. Do you know of any hard empirical evidence that does link greater cognitive diversity to better performance?

Yes. There is one in the Harvard Business Review, and another one by Deloitte. What the Harvard Business Review article found is that when you were trying to solve a problem or get something done, you’re about three times faster doing it. The Deloitte study was focused on innovation and entrepreneurship in organizations, and they denoted a 20 per cent improvement in innovative outcomes in those organizations.

To be completely transparent, there are also studies which, when you just look at normal diversity, suggests that there’s not a correlation between normal diversity and performance. There’s a really mixed bag of outcomes, but the focus now tends to be more on belonging than it does on diversity, inclusion and equality and equity, meaning those things are tools which lead to a greater sense of belonging, which is the great benefit for organizations and for people.

That’s more to do with the social good rather than perhaps actual productivity performance?

Yeah, absolutely. 

I have just finished reading a book written by Peter Thiel, Zero to One, published quite a while ago, on how to do start-ups and one of its messages which I found surprising was that within a start-up environment, when you’re rushing to get your product to market, establish that advantage in an emerging market, the founding team needs to have similar ways of thinking. So cognitive diversity might actually be a hindrance. Does that resonate with you?

It actually does not resonate with me. I can understand the very unique or niche-type environments where that similarity or commonality of thought might lead to a quick or immediate purpose. That start-up environment or any entrepreneurial environment might certainly be it. I haven’t honestly, thought about that in that way.

My background is primarily in publicly-traded companies, until I came here to SHRM. What I can tell you is that in my practicing life as a chief human resources officer in those publicly traded companies, we knew that the diversity of thought, of outcome was better when people who were on that team might not appear to have any commonality. 

As a matter of fact, I think there’s even some research that says that some of the best people at solving problems that other professionals haven’t been able to solve are from completely outside of the field. They just have a completely different lens on looking at the solution set. In a lot of ways, that’s what cognitive diversity brings into a workplace today. So the way an organization would capitalise on that, at least in a traditional corporate structure, would be to surround yourself with as much diversity of thought as you could possibly get with a primary focus on finding and identifying skills or capabilities you would need to round out the team. 

There’s research that’s shown that the best leaders are those who surround themselves with people who fill gaps. Jack Welch [former chairman and CEO of General Electric] always surrounded himself with people who were not like him. I think that’s probably still a good model to have, and it certainly fits with this idea that you can do even better if you think about the skills and capabilities brought about by cognitive diversity.

I think one of the defining factors in the world that we live in today is increasing complexity. The business environment is very dynamic and things are changing ever faster. In those kinds of environments, you need that cognitive diversity to be able to really thrive and address complex issues. We’re not in a static, simple world anymore. It’s much more complex and dynamic.

I agree. As we rely more and more on technical solution sets to solve problems traditionally solved in other ways, I think the lens that a cognitively diverse human brings to that solution set is even more pronounced. The ability to just look at a problem with a new or different lens would have to produce an outcome that’s at least worth studying. Those folks can help you get to a place that you might not otherwise have gotten to.

You talk about identifying the gaps. When it comes to identifying those gaps and hiring to improve cognitive diversity to fill those gaps, how would an organization go about doing that without spending too much time and money putting candidates through profiling tests?

We’re already seeing this happen organically in organizations. In the old days, every job required a college degree and that isn’t the case anymore. The labor market has required that employers look more at skills, competencies, and capabilities more so than degrees. The idea of identifying a specific skill to perform a specific task is now even clearer in the recruiting and sourcing processes than it ever has been in the past. Just the other day I read a statistic about how many jobs at both Microsoft and IBM no longer require a college degree, having required one forever. 

Organizations are even looking at and identifying these cognitive components. I see even less sophisticated organizations doing that same thing and they don’t even know they’re doing it. It’s almost happened organically. It’s certainly not as purposeful as it is in some organizations where technical skills in particular are required.

But of course, they’re all fighting the same kind of inbuilt biases that we all have. We tend to recruit in our own image. How do you break that cycle and who should be responsible for that? Should it be HR and diversity, equality and inclusion professionals who track and ensure broader diversity? Or should this be a C-suite focus?

It should be a C-suite focus, but the heads of human resources and those people who are responsible for bringing talent into an organization certainly need to lead the charge. There’s no doubt about it. This starts with the sourcing and recruiting of these individuals for the specific skills that they bring to an organization. But like I alluded to, you can teach recruiters how to do that. 

I think the bigger lift is teaching managers how to manage those people. Because it’s not the same in most cases. There’s a different focus on how you assign tasks, how you look for outcomes, how you reward individuals who may bring cognitive diversity into the workplace. Most organizations are wholly unprepared for that.

It is a change management practice. There’s no doubt about it. Not only that as a manager and leader, but how do you prepare a team that functioned quite well to bring on a new type of functioning onto the team? There can’t be that organ rejection type of approach. There must be something that eases that transition and helps the entire team to understand the value. What that is right now, other than learning and development or some type of expectation setting up, I don’t know. It’s clearly important. 

I think that part of it is to do with knowing that there are gaps, knowing that there are clusters of thinking, knowing in advance when you put together a team on the fly, like a project team or multidisciplinary, cross-functional, cross-departmental teams, it tends to focus around the skills that people bring. But if you they all have similar cognitive patterns, you only find that out after the event. 

That’s right.

So how can you determine whether a group of people bring different cognitive skills as well as technical capabilities?

You could certainly assess for that. I would look at the prior experience that those people have developed or had demonstrated. If you’re trying to find a cost-effective way to do that, it’s got to be performance-based. You must go back and look at what the performance of those individuals might have been in different environments that you now want to bring into a new environment. Innovation is unfortunately difficult to assess. It’s not always easy to determine who’s going be an innovative person in a particular environment. 

We talk and have begun to talk more at SHRM about the value of ‘intrapreneurship’ in organizations as opposed to entrepreneurship outside. Basically that same line of thinking brought into the organization.

There are a lot of times in those organizations when you’re focusing on intrapreneurship or innovation or anything that requires change to be conducted as an outcome. That’s where the organization gets stuck. There’s all kinds of terms to describe what they’ve done in order to try to get around that organizational rejection of those things. 

But I see it as more and more important to attract all candidates and particularly young people into organizations. It will be even more important that we have that entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial and innovative components in the workplaces to attract these cognitive diverse people as well. 

There really are three cultures that do well with cognitively diverse people: Cultures of innovation, of belonging, and of learning. If you get those three right in your organization, you’re probably going have a better chance of attracting and retaining these cognitively diverse people and benefiting from their capabilities.

The culture of learning is really interesting because it also talks to having a growth mind-set rather than a fixed mind-set.

I 100 per cent agree with you. We think about that a lot here at SHRM. The other one that I always bring in, particularly as you’re thinking about bringing individuals who might not have always been successful in workplaces or need new approaches to be successful is a culture of care. It’s different than being touchy-feely and being pushy. It’s creating cultures in which care is a component of success.

You spoke about creating a culture of intrapreneurship, but if you look at the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, that was really triggered by the behaviours of many of the venture capital firms in the bank. It led me to think that within SVB itself, was there a strong element of groupthink that resulted in them not seeing the problems in advance? Secondly, within the venture capital firms, there was this herd mentality. They all, rather than having greater diversity, actually exhibited very few cognitive differences. What do you think about that?

It’s a fascinating hypothesis and it would be something that we could explore. Was group think part of the problem? The answer, potentially, could be yes.

One of the things that’s kind of quite close to our hearts and our heads is how to go about measuring cognitive diversity. A particular area of interest of ours is a new measure for cognitive diversity, using a standard deviation or variance of team members’ and employees’ behavioural traits within any team, group or company, based on crowd-sourced perceptions of those who have worked with them. The greater the variation (and hence standard deviation), the greater the cognitive diversity.

Do you think such measures will be helpful in guiding organizations how to optimise performance at a team level as well as an overall company level?

The first two things that popped in my mind, was that the bigger the standard deviation, the better for diversity. The second thing was, well, by golly, we better make sure the behavioural traits that we are looking at are the right ones. 

Those are the two things that popped into my mind when you were describing that. We know what some of those behavioural traits are. I just wonder if we’ve got the right ones and if they’re always the same.

Those are the kinds of things I would want to think about. But an employer would typically not be interested in this unless they believe it’s the right thing to do. What will really get their attention is if it produces a better outcome. So it’s either an environmental, social and governance answer or a financial outcome answer. 

I haven’t seen other tools that measure this effectively. I’ve seen tools that try to diagnose it, but not tools that try to produce an outcome with the behavioural analysis or behavioural traits. I find it fascinating.

To your point in the interview you did with us previously, on the shame and fame board, if you could put together, and we are trying to put together exactly this, a public ranking of organizations and their cognitive diversity, do you think that would incentivise organizations to take it more seriously and actually do something about it?

For those organizations that value that, absolutely. You never want to be on the bottom of the list in the Western world. I would use that tool that you would describe as part of a broader ‘leadership index’ that we could use to help compose a very clear picture of how good an organization is. 

We could argue all day about what those components should be, but the cognitive piece certainly should be something you think about. Business leaders are going to pay attention to it, but the other folks who are going to pay attention to that are the people who you might employ. Utilising it as an attraction and retention engagement tool, I think would be something that organizations would buy.