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5 leadership strategies that cultivate cognitive diversity

To make the most of cognitively diverse teams, it’s important that members understand and appreciate the value of the differences.

4 min read



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Diversity is among the most critical issues and opportunities we face today. Conscious efforts abound, both in business settings and the world as a whole, to combat prejudice and improve inclusion.

The focus has been, to date, on such factors as race, gender, age and religion, all of which are important. But what about different perspectives, information-processing styles and ideas? Cognitive diversity is one factor that has been largely overlooked in our effort to honor differences.

Certainly, one reason that cognitive diversity might not get the attention it deserves is that, whereas other differences are generally obvious to the naked eye, how someone thinks or approaches a problem is virtually invisible. The issue also meshes seamlessly into and around people’s communication styles, further disguising it.

But obscured visibility is only a small part of why cognitive diversity is frequently overlooked. For instance, many organizations have a primary or dominant style (frequently following that of senior leaders). Hiring decisions are made in the image of these leaders. And those in the organization are subtly (and not so subtly) reinforced when emulating that style. As a result, we unintentionally contribute to cultural Darwinism — survival of the similar.

Additionally, the sheer cadence of business can undermine our ability to value and tap cognitive diversity. Time is among our most precious resources. And its short supply means that important decisions and actions often can’t wait, even when broad collaboration would be valuable or is truly necessary to leverage different types of thinking.

Despite these daunting impediments, cognitive diversity is too important to be sidelined. Making the most of the rich differences within an organization means elevating how people think and process information to the same level as other elements of diversity. It also means equipping leaders with skills and practices designed to honor, value and leverage cognitive diversity. To get started, consider the following.

Check in with yourself

Watch for and combat your own personal biases relative to how people think, process information and solve problems. Treat this just like any other diversity factor. Take the time to recognize and process your own reactions; but don’t allow them to affect how you interact with others.

Convene teams that think differently

Consciously create cognitively diverse teams. Recruit people intentionally to ensure a rich mix of thinking styles and different points of view. Intentionally seek out others who approach problems differently than you do.

Sell the team on the value of cognitive diversity

To make the most of cognitively diverse teams, it’s important that members understand and appreciate the value of the differences. Doing so will help others confront their own biases; but it also gives each person permission to bring their most unique selves to the effort rather than trying to conform as is expected in many organizations.

Build confidence with having and addressing different points of view

Since some people are uncomfortable or unskilled in this arena, leaders may need to provide additional structure and support. For instance, assigning a devil’s advocate whose job it is to be a contrarian provides permission and practice offering different perspectives. Modeling and supporting curiosity also go a long way toward creating a culture that values diversity of all kinds.  

See something, say something

Addressing biases, cognitive or otherwise, requires sustained attention. As a result, it’s critical for leaders to remain vigilant. They must be willing to identify and draw attention to situations where diversity is not being valued. Conversely, they need to recognize when it is and take the time to celebrate that as well.

Given today’s volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous world, we need as many different brains and approaches on problems as possible. Leveraging cognitive diversity enables teams and organizations to respond more agilely to ever-changing conditions, tap everyone’s best thinking, support innovation and disruption, solve increasingly complex challenges, and engage every employee. Because after all, who knows where that next great game-changing idea will come from?


Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning.  Named one of Inc. Magazines top 100 leadership speakers, Julie is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller, “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” a respected speaker on a variety of topics, and a regular contributor to many business publications.

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