There’s a kind of diversity we can’t see. During the past few decades, we’ve rightfully taken steps towards diversifying our teams and organisations in terms of age, gender and ethnicity to ensure better representation. We have much further to go, but meanwhile, there is a type of diversity that is less visible, a journey we’ve barely even started. And it’s the only type of diversity proven to enhance team performance.
Over 12 years, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis ran a strategic execution exercise with over 100 teams. This was a challenge designed to simulate an uncertain, complex business situation. Whilst they found no correlation between team success and age, gender or ethnicity, there was a significant correlation between high cognitive diversity and high performance.
What is cognitive diversity?
"Cognitive diversity is the inclusion of people who have different ways of thinking, different viewpoints and different skill sets in a team or business group."
Whilst it may be comfortable to work with others who think the same way, conformity of thought leads to stagnation, stifles innovation and allows oversights.
According to the research, what made a difference was whether team members had different perspectives or styles of processing information. Specifically, the teams that completed the exercise quickly managed both to apply existing knowledge and to seek out new information. They also included those with specialised knowledge and expertise, and others who were able to step back and look at the bigger picture.
Why is it overlooked?
1. Cognitive diversity is invisible.
Culture and age aren’t reliable indicators of how someone processes information or reacts to change. The importance of cognitive diversity is unlikely to be recognised, especially if a team appears to be working harmoniously. However, team harmony isn’t necessarily an indicator of success. It doesn’t matter how well colleagues are getting along. If opportunities are passing the business by, or it isn’t able to recognise threats to its survival, the team will surely fail.
2. There are barriers to cognitive diversity within organisations.
Many recruitment processes consist of people seeking like-minded colleagues or hiring in the mould of one successful employee. Even when a conscious effort is made to call in others from outside, organisations may likely fall into the trap of listening to those who recommend the most comfortable and least disruptive course of action.
So how do we build cognitively-diverse teams?
In order to promote cognitive diversity, we first need to teach ourselves to recognise and value difference in approaches. The successful teams in the study were able to do this. In Belbin Team Role terms, those with Resource Investigator tendencies would have led the drive to seek out new intelligence, whilst the Implementer-strong candidates processed existing information. Specialists provided knowledge and expertise, whilst Co-ordinators kept a broader eye on priorities.
"But it isn’t enough to recognise these different approaches in the abstract and hope for the best. For real success, we need to understand those dynamics as they pertain to real teams, and to engender mutual respect for the benefit each party gains from the other’s contribution."
Those with Monitor Evaluator Team Role behaviours might find Resource Investigator enthusiasm too much, whilst those with Resource Investigator proclivities become frustrated with Monitor Evaluator pessimism. But if the one can value the energy and external insights the other brings, and the other can appreciate the importance of level-headedness, they are more likely to work together effectively towards a solution.
If we discover that a team doesn’t have sufficient cognitive diversity, it’s crucial to seek out people who disagree. But it isn’t enough to throw one outlier into a team and expect them to fight to have their voice heard. If we truly want change, we also have to build psychological safety so that dissenters feel able to speak out and try doing things differently. And this also means devising strategies to mitigate clashes. When forming working pairs, we might ask individuals with complementary Team Roles to work together, but identify common ground too—a shared behavioural approach which they can fall back on, if needed.
At Belbin, we know that observing, articulating and managing behaviours is key to individual development and team success. Whilst not all Team Roles need to be represented in every team, building a team requires careful thought. Its objective, the stage of its life cycle and its unique challenges will all go to determine which contributions are required at different times.
- The first step is to discover our strengths and the strengths of those around us, via the Belbin Individual Reports.
- Data can then be collated into a Team Report to show how the team operates as a whole. This report takes the guesswork out of cognitive diversity, pointing up any homogeneity of working styles, and indicating where the gaps may be.
- Armed with this knowledge, the manager can ‘health check’ the cognitive diversity of the team, and consider which contributions may be usefully included to enhance team performance.
How cognitively diverse is your team? Do you know what you’re missing and where to begin looking for it? Start your Belbin journey today and contact us.