Cognitive Diversity

By People Leaders | People Leaders Podcast

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Workplace diversity has been a pretty hot topic in recent years. Most people think of diversity in terms such as gender, age, race or physical or intellectual ability. And rightly so, as diversity based on these characteristics adds tremendous value to a workplace.

However, there is a less talked about form of diversity that has a huge impact on how teams and businesses operate. Cognitive diversity refers to the differing perspectives or information processing styles that we have. The ways in which we take in information, how we process that information, and how we make decisions based on that information. We discussed it on this podcast episode but also expand on it more below.

In short, if you have a team that thinks like you and makes decisions just like you, then you probably have a problem and are less likely to have a high performing team.

Most of us are knowledge workers these days, hence the way in which we organise and process information has a huge impact on the work that we do. By ensuring diversity in styles across the team, you are more likely to achieve the best outcomes for all concerned.

This can be challenging for managers because our personal preferences are usually our default preferences. Having to switch perspectives can literally require us to step into another paradigm. Try this exercise as a demonstration.

Hold your hand up in front of you and focus on the hand. Notice that everything in the periphery and at a distance is soft and out of focus. You may see shapes but are probably missing details. Now shift your attention to something in the background. Notice what happens to the hand. It will likely be soft and out of focus now. You can’t focus on the far item and the near item at the same time.

This is what it takes to be an effective manager of information and teams. We need to be able to switch between one perspective and then the other(s). You can't hold multiple perspectives at the same time. So what does that mean when we're managing people and managing teams?

Being able to switch effectively between perspectives will greatly enhance your problem solving and team building skills. But first it helps to know what those different perspectives look like.

How We Receive Information

The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (or MBTI) and some other psychometric tools, tells us that we are like to have a preference for Sensing (S) or Intuition (N) when it comes to gathering information.

Sensors, as you might expect, rely on the senses to gather information. They like to rely on things they see, touch, smell, taste and hear. They know, like and trust facts and figures. They are very observant and ‘practical.’ They like to see case studies and testimonials. They like ‘proof’ and they rely heavily on past experience - when we did this X happened - when evaluating what’s happening now or what is likely to happen in the future.

The catchphrase of the sensor is - Just give me the facts please.

Intuits, on the other hand, are more moved by ideas and patterns. While the more common meaning applied to intuition is around ‘gut feelings’ or sensing the future, the meaning here is more about relying on the unseen, the abstract. Hunches predominate over logic and future possibilities are not determined or limited by the past. Change is welcomed by the intuit.

Don’t be fooled by the seemingly impractical nature of the intuits though. These are the visionaries. Without intuits we wouldn’t have sliced bread or smartphones or elevators.

The catchphrase of the intuit is - What else is possible?

Sensors usually outnumber intuits in the population by about four to one. This is why blog posts with numbers in the title - 4 Ways To Tie Your Shoelaces, The Top 7 Tips For Making Margaritas - are disproportionately more popular than those that don’t.

So the skill for managers is in ensuring they have their fair share of intuits to balance out the team dynamic. And when managing the team, it’s important to cater for both styles.

For a team meeting, the sensors will likely prefer a formal agenda with all the relevant facts and figures accessible. Whereas the intuits will probably prefer the meeting to open with a visionary statement or two - this is what we want to achieve and these are the outcomes we’re after.

When making projections with the team, have a fact based outcome to cater to the sensors but get buy-in from the intuits by exploring possibilities as well. It can still be related to the facts (or not) but consider what the outcomes of the projections might mean - If we hit the top targets we will be able to [insert possibility here], and if we only meet the low end targets we can adapt by [insert possibility here].

Your intuits are your ‘change junkies’ so will help you prepare for the future in ways that sensors cannot. In fact your sensors may be threatened by change. They will want to see a plan and will want some certainty around the impact of that plan.

Neither preference is better than the other and both bring value to the table. Your skill as a manager is to allow both preferences to be heard and to be catered for. It’s especially important for you to know your own bias so you know which way you need to lean to compensate. (If the above hasn’t given you sufficient clues, get in touch with us and we can arrange an MBTI profile and a debrief to give you more insights).

How We Process Information and Make Decisions

Again, the MBTI (and experience) tells us there are two ways that we process information and make decisions, either by Thinking (T) or by Feeling (F). Through the head or through the heart.

Thinkers use the left brain to apply analysis and logic to a situation. You'll know someone who has a high preference for this type of cognitive behaviour. When they see an issue or a problem, they go straight to the problem. So if they're looking at a report they see what's not there, what's missing, what's wrong. Sometimes they'll communicate that straight away to someone which can create some conflict.

The thinker’s personality may be perceived as a little bit more impersonal and tough minded sometimes.

The catchphrase of the thinker is - The logical conclusion is...

A feeler tends to be more values based. That’s not to say that thinkers don’t have values of course, it just means that the feeler will let values and feelings take precedence over logic. They would evaluate or make a decision about an issue or a problem based on how people might be impacted or how they personally value something. Thus a feeler may be perceived as being more tender and warm hearted than a thinker.

Feelers usually look for the 'best' answer for all involved, whereas a thinker would look for the 'right' answer.

Feelers actually ‘step into’ a situation whereas the thinkers will stand back from a situation. Feelers can be quite empathic and can actually start to feel what someone else is feeling. What they tend to forget is to step back and make a decision based on what they actually need rather than the person they are empathising with.

For someone with a preference for thinking, our micro-tip to understand the world of the feeler is to stop thinking and start listening to whatever's around you and drop into your body. That means you start to notice how your body is feeling. Does the body feel light or heavy? Relaxed or tense? Edgy or comfortable? Notice how these feelings affect your thinking without logic playing a role.

Again, both processing styles bring value to the workplace. The advent of corporate social responsibility and mindfulness practices in the workplace are due in large part to the growing recognition of the feeling preference.

How To Balance Cognitive Diversity In The Workplace

The talent of a manager is to ensure you have a balance of styles and preferences on your team and to foster understanding between team members of the different styles others bring to the table.

When making a managerial decision, ensure you go through all the different styles:

  • Have I considered the facts?
  • Have I explored the possibilities?
  • What is the logical decision?
  • How will people be affected by this?
  • Am I balancing my head and my heart?

Where possible, consult with team members who you know have preferences that oppose yours to get their point of view.

Be open about the process with all your team members so they understand ‘the logic’ behind it. While they may not agree or be comfortable with a decision, they can at least be respectful of the process that led to it.

It may take a little bit longer to reach an agreement or a decision but the quality of the decision, and even the quality of the process, will be so much more enhanced.

Parting Words

For our final words on the subject we’ll hand over to General George S. Patton…

"If everyone is thinking the same thing, someone's not thinking at all."


PS - If you’d like to give your whole team a deeper understanding of these principles we have a range of MBTI workshops we’d love to deliver. Get in touch and we can give you the details.

"If everyone is thinking the same thing, someone's not thinking at all." General George S. Patton #mbti #myersbriggs #workplacediversity #diversity #hr #leadership CognitiveDiversity

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