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IT Professional Thomas Leen on Building Cognitively Diverse Teams

Many businesses around the world find themselves struggling in their ability to solve complex problems. The answer to faster and more effective information processing may lie in a company’s ability to understand and implement cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity involves establishing teams comprised of individuals with varying skill-sets, perspectives, and problem-solving preferences. Research shows that cognitively diverse teams are more likely to be successful and result in more effective decision-making.   

Thomas Leen is an Information Security Professional with ample experience in creating and managing high-performance, multicultural and geographically dispersed IT teams. Leen emphasizes one of the main benefits to cognitively diverse teams is a workforce made up of employees with complementary skills. It is only natural that people possess unique ways of thinking and processing information. For instance, while some people prefer to solve problems by leveraging years of experience, others use newly attained skills to reach a solution. Alternatively, many individuals opt for outside assistance when faced with a dilemma, whereas others choose to deal with it alone. Leen states that there are a number of ways managers and team leaders can build more cognitively diverse groups in order to meet their business needs:

Types of Diversity

The first step in building a cognitively diverse team is realizing that there are many forms of diversity that can exist within a workplace. While it is important to hire individuals of different ages, genders, and ethnicities, research from the Harvard Business Review indicates that focusing on building a team with highly varied strengths is more valuable. A study they conducted involved disseminating individuals into teams where they were asked to complete a strategic exercise involving new and uncertain situations. Groups included teachers, scientists, MBA students, managers and teenagers of different ages and ethnicities. While all groups were diverse, only some were successful. Teams that comprised of mostly like-minded thinkers tended to suffer the most.

Know Yourself

It is important for managers and employees to be aware of their personal problem-solving style, says Leen. While some individuals take a more deliberate and analytical approach to problems, others prefer to trust in their intuition. Understanding that people have different preferences for interpreting problems will inevitably make it easier for group members to accept varying viewpoints. Managers should educate themselves and their subordinates on this topic so that groups can reap the benefits of cognitive diversity.

New Recruitment Strategy

Companies that are struggling with sustained innovation and idea generation may benefit from re-evaluating their current recruitment strategy. In general, humans tend to surround themselves with people that possess similar traits and characteristics to themselves. Whether it is subconscious or not, hiring too many like-minded thinkers can be highly detrimental to a company that faces a mirage of uncertain situations. As a result, it may be worthwhile to consider a panel interview method to prevent hiring managers from falling victim to cognitive bias. Leen also suggests personality assessments, third party recruiters and the use of unconscious bias assessments as other practical tools to promote cognitive diversity.

Celebrate Employee Differences

At work, like in most aspects of our lives, there is an overwhelming pressure to “fit in.” An employee sitting on a novel idea for months may never reveal his/her idea for the fear of being ridiculed in an environment that encourages conformity. Leen believes promoting psychological safety is imperative to a well-functioning team. Workplaces that foster psychological safety motivate employees to share new ideas and raise questions, without having to worry about negative consequences. To create this type of atmosphere, management can request upward feedback, introduce an open-door policy and encourage employees to ask more questions. Other options include diversity training and celebrations to reward successful team projects.

Active Listening

Cognitive diversity may be stifled when management or another member of the team is highly opinionated and dominates the conversation. These types of individuals may not even be aware that they are preventing new ideas from being generated. Managers, in particular, should lead by example and practice active listening skills during all workplace discussions. Moreover, another proactive solution to this dilemma is selecting an employee to play devil’s advocate during team meetings. This will force employees to respectfully challenge colleagues’ ideas and lead to more informed decision-making.

Seek Collaborative Opportunities

Strategic partnerships involve collaborating with other individuals, groups or companies in order to capture heightened cognitive diversity. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to call upon someone with no prior knowledge of the situation in the hopes of developing a unique solution. For example, healthcare and technology companies frequently come together to solve complex issues that are mutually beneficial. It is also common for businesses to create cross-functional teams within an organization. These teams are made up of individuals from different departments to work on projects that require a diverse set of skills.

Foster Innovation

Many prominent companies like Google and 3M allow employees to spend a portion of their time each week working on a passion project of their choosing. For these organizations, the results have been so successful that it has even led to the invention of new products. Providing employees with opportunities to innovate fosters trust, autonomy and the ability to collaborate with other employees interested in pursuing similar projects.

In conclusion, today’s business leaders should focus on building cognitive diversity within the workplace in order to increase innovation, enhance productivity and grow profits. Leen suggests putting the above practices in place in order to sustain the benefits that can be achieved through cognitively diverse teams.

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