Cognitive diversity as a driver for workplace and economic betterment

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett May 28, 2019
Cognitive diversity might hold the key for solving the real problems of inequality.

The other week I came across this from good buddy Tom Raftery. On its face, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that it represents anything other than an achievement in his personal mission to promote at least one facet of diversity.

The Big 8 of diversity

I've never been happy with focusing on one area of diversity, which is really the flip side of societal inequality at its broadest and inequality in the workplace as is often debated among technology folks. As another example, I recently signed up for a forum and one of the questions asked me to bucket myself in one or more categories, based upon one definition of the Big 8.of Diversity. I selected age as I know it is a gating factor for people of my age and has been for some years. I could have picked others if I wanted to get really picky and grumpy. 

There are numerous problems with these kinds of definition, not least of which is who gets to decide what constitutes diversity and how does that align with different cultures? Be that as it may, these kinds of definition are a starting point for focusing where diversity in the workplace requires attention. And of course, we welcome the strong stand that CEOs like Marc Benioff of Salesforce takes on the twin topics of inequality and diversity. 

But as I looked over the steady drumbeat of content that lauds one initiative or another I wonder whether we run the risk of applying a misguided sense of moral failure in endeavoring to build the best possible workplace environments. For example, I recall only too well as we built out diginomica the ear bashing I took for not having women on the team.

My reasoning then and to this day is that we want the best people we can find for what we do. For example, over time we've found some exceptionally capable women but equally, we struggle to bring them as close to the business as we'd like. Commitments as primary caregiver figures largely in their honest assessment that they could not give what we want, despite our best efforts to accommodate needs and our open-ended commitment to work-life balance. Maybe we are over-represented with people who are 45 plus, but you can't buy their experience. 

We're in one of the most competitive and potentially crushing services of today. But if you want time off? Take it, we'll cope perfectly well while you rest up. You're not feeling great? Go get well and don't come back until you're 100%. You've got family issues? Go be by their side for as long as is needed. You're done with travel? (That's me!) The rest of the team will figure it out. In short, we value what people bring to the table while respecting the things that make us different. 

Cognitive diversity as a pre-requisite

As I've noodled on this problem over the years it struck me that I have been missing something and then I came across an interesting story by Bernd Leukert, former board member SAP. He talked about the importance of cognitive diversity. It hit a nerve with me in part because I have felt vaguely uncomfortable at the tech industry’s current overemphasis on gender diversity, especially at customer events. It’s not that I have any problem with surfacing the long-standing issue of gender diversity in leadership. But rather that has always struck me as a one-dimensional view of inequality in much the same way that focusing on age, sexual identity, race, and age do. 

In the article, entitled More Than Quotas: Why Cognitive Diversity Matters, Leukert says of cognitive diversity:

It is a type of diversity that is less visible, but all the more important as its impact extends well beyond meeting quotas. Cognitive diversity is about differences in thinking, viewpoints, perspective and information processing styles – so in how people feel, think, and act. 

It is natural that people feel comfortable surrounding themselves with others who have styles similar to their own. And indeed, we often tend to move towards people who think and express themselves in a similar way. Unfortunately, when you get more of the same, you end up with more of the same – in the business context with like-minded teams that have only a limited ability to see things differently, engage in different ways, or create new opportunities. 

People who bring different perspectives might see threats and opportunities that others may miss. And indeed, based on my experience, achieving a mixture of how people carry out intellectual activities, such as making associations or drawing conclusions, is crucial for innovation, complex problem-solving and high performance.

I was also struck by the evidence Leukert cites from a Deloitte study which suggests that cognitive diversity

...enhances innovation by 20 %, reduces risks by 30 %, and eases the implementation of decisions.

This got me thinking about my own responses to this topic and in response, I said:

I can’t count the number of times I’ve caught myself wondering: ‘How is this person thinking?’ Or the equally perplexing: ‘Why are they not understanding this?’ But then I should not be surprised when an answer to a seemingly intractable problem comes from an otherwise unexpected source.

I wonder how many others feel the same way? But then I did some more digging into this topic and found that there is surprisingly little said on cognitive diversity outside of academic circles.

As a follow-up, Leukert endeavored to get into some of the ways that firms can seek to establish cognitively diverse teams. It was a brave effort and one that drew praise and derision in equal measure. I can understand why when, on the one hand, Leukert promotes the idea of safe places yet welcomes conflict.

Regardless, I now see that what I have been thinking about all these years is not about any set of societally diverse dimensions as the key to building a great team but that we want and need people capable of constructively challenging the way we see the world. And for that, I don't care if you're a partially sighted, wheelchair bound cross-dressing 70-year-old from planet Zog with a green complexion and pink hair who scarfs junk food 24x7 and suffers from Tourette's Syndrome, a regular person (whatever that means) or anything in-between.

Because I was once told that the most important question you can ask anyone who is taking a position is "Why?" And then doing them the courtesy of listening to, understanding and re-interpreting their point of view back into the problem you're trying to solve. In my experience, a fresh perspective can come from anywhere. And it starts with recognizing that cognitive diversity is what gets you questioning assumptions that act as the scaffolding for many of the inherent biases we all carry around. 

The economic impact of inequality

The big question though is - does it work? Leukert has seen enough of life in leadership positions to believe so. And in a recent essay entitled Eight Reasons Why Inequality Ruins the Economy, Charles Dillow notes that:

Roland Benabou gave the example (pdf) of how egalitarian South Korea has done much better than the unequal Philippines. And IMF researchers have found (pdf) a “strong negative relation” between inequality and the rate and duration of subsequent growth spells across 153 countries between 1960 and 2010.

Correlations, of course, are only suggestive. They pose the question: what is the mechanism whereby inequality might reduce growth?

He then goes on to enumerate eight factors that might (my emphasis) impact economies. Among them (and they are all thought-provoking) is this: 

The high-powered incentives that generate inequality within companies can backfire. As Benabou and Tirole have shown (pdf), they encourage bosses to hit measured targets and neglect less measurable things that are nevertheless important for a firm’s success such as a healthy corporate culture. Or they might crowd out intrinsic motivations such as professional ethics. Big bank bonuses, for example, encouraged mis-selling and rigging markets rather than productive activities.

...and this...

Unequal corporate hierarchies – what Jeffrey Nielsen calls rank-based organizations – can demotivate junior employees. One study of Italian football teams, for example, has found that “high pay dispersion has a detrimental impact on team performance.” That’s consistent with a study of Bundesliga and NBA teams by Benno Torgler and colleagues which found that “positional concerns and envy reduce individual performance.”

Dillow is careful to ensure he doesn't paint himself into a corner. Instead, he rounds out his argument with: 

My point here is that what matters is not so much the level of inequality as the effect it has. And it might well be a pernicious one. If inequality has contributed to weaker growth, then it is very likely to have contributed to the rise of populism and to Brexit and the divisions with which both are associated. In this way, inequality does political damage too.

From this perspective, pointing out that the Gini coefficient has been flat for years (which is true if we ignore housing costs) is like saying that because the bus has stopped moving we need not care about the man who has been run over by it. It misses the main point.

You might be wondering why any of this matters in the context of cognitive diversity. Consider this, again from Dillow: 

Inequality can cause the rich to be fearful of future redistribution or nationalization, which will make them loath to invest. National Grid is belly-aching, maybe rightly, that Labour’s plan to nationalize it will delay investment. But it should instead ask: why is Labour proposing such a thing, and why is it popular?

As Tom Raftery knows only too well, you can bang on as many drums as you like, but if you are not addressing the economic impact of any change, then in our profit-motive driven world, nothing much happens. Let's be very clear when considering inequality as the mirror image of a lack of diversity. The common thread is always about economic disadvantage, something I discovered when studying sociology over 25 years ago and which, if Dillow is even vaguely correct, is still the backdrop against which we must be prepared to view this at seemingly intractable problems.

When you can demonstrate how inequality hurts, that's when people in power sit up, listen and take action. My sense is that Benioff is one of the very few CEOs who inherently knows that attention to diversity really is good for business. But then it also means asking the right questions and correlating that to seeing better outcomes when inequality is eradicated. 

Final words

I'm not saying or suggesting that efforts to promote one or more disadvantaged groups is a net bad or is wrong-headed. We absolutely should celebrate achievements by those who go unrecognized by reason of their difference. But for as long as we focus on gender, race, sexual orientation or the myriad other diversity inducing classifications of people then we're missing the point. We need all of that, but we lose something valuable in failing to understand that difference in cognition is a vital attribute. And, of course, none of this is easy. Especially when your worldview acts to keep you rooted by feet of clay. 

Image credit - Free images

Disclosure - Salesforce is a premier partner at the time of writing.

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