Skip to main content


Cognitive Diversity

by Helen Mayson



© Sudok1 | - Human brain CT

Diversity in your organisation is key to innovation. Nick Martindale asks why diversity of thought is important to improve your performance

When recruitment business Capital International Staffing Limited started to think about increasing its own headcount again around 18 months ago, it realised the downsizing of the recession had left it with a team of solid performers who were largely of the same personality type.

“The market had changed with the advent of social media and how people interact, as well as how a recruitment business works,” says Karen Silk, the firm’s managing director. “We needed to reinvent ourselves and recognised we had to bring in a different type of person who would come in with new ideas and challenge us and our processes.”

Capital’s attempt to recruit people of different character types to create a more productive and varied team is part of a broader move by HR and recruitment organisations to encourage greater cognitive diversity into their businesses and those of their clients. “Often the rewards of employing someone with a diverse thought process will outweigh any risk,” says Tony Moss, managing director of Your World Recruitment Group, which encourages its own consultants to factor in cognitive diversity when building teams for clients. “Often their thoughts will produce fresh ideas, innovation and sometimes those radical solutions.”

The idea has become more established in the wake of the economic downturn, and as businesses look to position themselves for a recovery. “As the UK economy continues to recover and the market opens up, businesses are more focused on securing a competitive advantage,” says Jonathan Abelson, director of specialist recruitment consultant MERJE. “Being open-minded about candidates who address problems from a different angle improves employee engagement and can help companies embrace innovation. The key is to focus on individuals who can adapt well to different situations and personalities, while encouraging information-sharing throughout the business.”

How to Build a Better Board:

Having a diverse range of characters and personalities is particularly important at board level, suggests Emma-Claire Kavanagh, executive director at recruitment specialist BIE Executive. “Employers still need to be educated that real diversity has nothing to do with quotas – it’s about getting the right mix of personalities, skills and styles,” she says. “The most successful organisations are the ones that use the diversity of their executive team to develop well-rounded strategies which are then communicated in ways that connect with staff at all levels. This can only happen effectively when there is a complementary mix of talents and behaviours around the top table.”

HR has an important role to play in helping to build cognitively diverse teams. “The answer lies in the culture of the business,” says Sue Brooks, executive vice president at Pinstripe & Ochre House. “Creating a flexible environment that is open to adaptation and new concepts or ideas will be conducive to the attraction and retention of talent with a wide variety of approaches, experiences and ideas. It is the job of the HR department to emphasise the business goals which can be achieved through real diversity.”

Geoff Trickey is managing director of Psychological Consultancy Ltd. He believes a good starting point is for managers to identify any strong cognitive bias within their team and establish what influence this might have on the culture of the organisation. “Managers should also consider where the team or organisation is headed in the future and whether the team dynamics are such that it will get them there,” he says. “From this, it is possible to see whether there are gaps in competencies or a skew in terms of personality or risk type.”

At Capital, it was a specific type of personality that Silk was looking for. “It was people who were really open-minded and not frightened of making mistakes or what everyone else thinks about them,” she says. “We looked at the way they dressed and the challenges we put them through at interview; did they just try to say what they thought we wanted to hear or were they prepared to come up with an idea that is different? We haven’t boiled it down to an actual type but we’re now starting to recognise them when they come in for interview.”

Can new ideas go too far?

But implementing cognitive diversity is very different in practice, and Silk admits their first attempt – when they hired in a senior leader – was a disaster. “He did have some great ideas and said it how it was but it rocked the boat violently,” she recalls. “It was really upsetting because he was all the things we were hoping for but he was too much; we’d gone too far.”

The firm has since appointed two other people from a similar but less extreme ilk, but into mid-ranking roles with no line management responsibility rather than a senior post. “With their ideas, skills and challenges, it is working a lot better and we’re getting the benefit from it now,” she says. “We tried to be too wild but you have to do it with small steps. We’re now opening up the minds of the whole team, and possibly now I could bring in the person we originally hired. But it’s not easy.”

Kate Russell, managing director of Russell HR Consulting, also has reservations, preferring to stress the need to build effective teams. “We often say that in love opposites attract but in work opposites can create tension,” she says. “We tend to enjoy working with people who think like us. To reduce tension and get the best response, identify individual preferences, get the right people in the right roles and then allow them to work in the way that suits them best.”

Ultimately, the aim should be to develop a culture that allows a balance between different personality types, to avoid a repeat of the kind of imbalance which arguably helped create the conditions for some of the more extreme risk-taking in the run-up to the recession, believes Dianah Worman, public policy adviser for diversity at the CIPD.

“You want a mix of views and approaches and the challenge in getting that mix uncontaminated is to ensure the culture in the organisation doesn’t squeeze out the very differences you’re trying to attract,” she says. “If you get too much of a rigid culture you won’t get the flexibility of responses that you need. It’s a complicated area of activity and we’re still learning about it. But it has the potential to add huge value.”



←  Go back                                                  Next page