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Editorial Team
10 Jan 2019



Perspectives Change Perceptions – Hire For Cognitive Diversity

diverse workforce

Minds that think seldom think alike: Cognitive diversity in the workplace

What is the cost of having a culture match? There is a strong reason as to why culture and cult have the same root – they both when pushed beyond a point will negate all chances at diversity. Alison Reynolds and David Lewis came to the conclusion in their twelve yearlong research that diversity and performance have no correlation. The research volunteers had different professionals (MBA grads to school teachers) in groups of a minimum of 16 participants. What is the takeaway of including diversity in acquiring talent if not an enhanced performance?

A lot has been said if not done about diversity: gender, race, ethnicity, language, region and physical capabilities. Yes, the parity is yet to reach.

  • Bank of England in its “Cognitive Diversity and Inclusion Survey” found that compared to their white staff, their BAME staff ranked the bank lower in inclusion ratings.
  • The World Economic Forum says that if things go as they are now, a gender pay parity will be feasible by 2234.

Reaching parity will take the long route of evolution – diversity and inclusion are just the first stepping stones.

Building a heterogeneous group and hiring people from diverse backgrounds are just ticking a box under corporate social responsibility. Diversity and performance are not correlated. They somehow do not end up being in the scheme of things as far as organizational success is concerned. Reynolds and Lewis looked beyond the ‘conventional’ diversity and put their money on cognitive diversity.

They focused on individual ability to think and perceive when faced with a new or unknown challenge. They took after Peter Robertson’s (a psychiatrist and business consultant) AEM tool that measures two different approaches while facing change.

  • Knowledge Processing wherein people gather or generate new knowledge sources to find a solution.
  • Perspective approach wherein they rank their own and other team member’s expertise to find answers.

There were six control groups, each assigned a task and a time limit to complete it. The first three groups that showed a high diversity of knowledge processing and perspective thought fared better than homogenous groups.

Saying No to the “Yes-man”

Similarity Bias’, a term coined by Kellogg School of Management, is perhaps the biggest roadblock in creating a pro-cognitive diversity hiring strategy. Companies and leadership will go diverse on the outside but have a bias in favor of “yes-man” (or yes-person). Culture fit is the logical name many companies give to this bias.

It is basically like the herd where everyone faces south and while they are all alert and do not see a danger – the predator strikes from the north.

When it comes to tech hiring, there is a strong bias for expertise and know-how in the field. You will see the R&D wing of companies filled with people with a similar education background. The pecking order is dictated by experience and expertise. Reynolds and Lewis took up their cognitive diversity test with the R&D department of a biotechnology start-up. They were a heterogeneous group when it came to race, gender, and other more apparent factors. They performed terribly in the test because they were homogenous when it came to the cognitive background – an all Ph.D. team with a strong inclination towards Biotechnology.

It is ironical that cognitive diversity is so important and yet suffers from low visibility.

Companies never truly realize the power of a fresh perspective over age-old expertise until it is there; sitting and staring at their faces. Take the case of Foldit, a crowdsourcing game aimed to allow scientists to get a better understanding of the workings of protein enzymes in humans. They threw a puzzle challenge wherein participants had to remodel one of the four amino acids on an enzyme. The top five from 70,000 entries were from people who never had an active interaction with science as a subject beyond high school. The skills that got them there were some praiseworthy spatial reasoning skills, intuition, a spirit of competition and self-organization.

Differently wired? No, it’s differently intelligent

When it comes to creating software then there are stages to it. Creating an intuitive UI or focusing on the UX needs someone to sit and spend hours going through every code with sharp precision and focus. SAP AG came up with a solution a few years back. They are open to recruiting people with mild autism in their technical roles. People having Asperger’s Syndrome or those who fall in the borderline autism spectrum have exceptional focus while performing complex tasks.

Why did the solution not come any sooner? The answer will be the communication skill deficit of people who have autism. When it comes to hiring and accepting cognitive diversity in the workplace, these are the speed bumps:

  • Leaders hire people in their image because we as humans avoid conflict.
  • We look for individual expertise and lose sight of a person as a group contributor. Most of the times the person will end up in a team aka group.

Hiring objectively is the solution. Look for the skills and thought process the team requires. Frame people management rules keeping in mind individuals in the workforce. Cognitively diverse people will have different perceptions of what they call a reward or a perk. Keep the team culture flexible or neutral to allow breathing space for cognitive diversity. People with different thought processes will have more debates and leaders need to nurture innovation by learning to take feedback that is against their process.

Scott Page, a University of Michigan economist came up with a diversity pro hiring study in his book ‘The Difference”. The study had three individuals (we will call them A, B and C) interviewing for two vacant positions in the research team. The result of the Test had A and B as the highest scorers. The conventional logic will go in the favor of hiring them. However, if you take time to see the questions each of them answered then C had answered every question that A failed to answer. A diverse hiring strategy will choose A and C as a part of their research team.

Leaders and Recruiters should take cognizance of cognitive diversity and strategize to bring different thought processes to the table. A fresh perspective can speed up the process, create innovative ideas and facilitate a 360-degree view of the problem at hand. What is your take on cognitive diversity? How much of a pro-inclusion do you think leaders should be to create a diverse workforce? Do tell us about your perspective.

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