Common sense and consistent research dictate that a diverse workforce equals better business outcomes. A team with a different set of backgrounds brings with it a variety of skills and perspectives that allow for a holistic approach to problem solving and creative decision making.
What might not be as obvious is that diversity needs to go beyond identity factors, such as someone’s age, sex and nationality. Business leaders must also work on creating teams that are cognitively diverse; intentionally seeking out members who think, act and behave differently from each other and themselves.
I’m not talking about the introvert/extrovert binary popularised by Carl Jung, though each personality type certainly has its place in the modern workplace. What I’m referring to is much more granular and individualised: a variety in the core strengths that guide people.
These strengths may include competitiveness, empathy, ideation, discipline and consistency, and can arise from experiences based on identity factors. Once determined, usually through data-driven tools, they can be leveraged for personal and career development, and go a long way towards engaging employees and bettering the customer experience. They also allow for complex challenges to be solved quickly and more successfully.
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But for all of this to be achieved, a diverse array of strengths is key.
From strength to diverse strength
Picture the following: a group of people seated around a boardroom and tasked with solving a complex problem. Only, each person’s primary strength is their thirst for competition. Can you guess what would ensue? Loud voices jostling for position, no one backing down from their opinions all while the clock ticks away and precious time is lost.
Likewise, if the boardroom is filled with people driven by empathy, the pendulum would swing too far in the other direction. The team is likely to be in complete unison, at the expense of boundary-pushing ideas and creativity. The meeting would be much more fruitful with a bit of ideation to develop and convey ideas, competition to push the envelope, empathy to hear out other views and discipline to keep things on track. The interplay between various strengths is where the true magic happens.
A deeper understanding of individual strengths can also be funnelled into more sophisticated recognition efforts, which, according to Deloitte, are the cornerstone of employee engagement.
Every single employee at my company, including those in the graduate program, complete a strengths-based survey spanning 35 disciplines, and the results of this provide the basis for early professional and personal development conversations.
This follows diversity measures in the recruitment process, where candidates are interviewed by a variety of stakeholders with different strengths and approaches to problem-solving. Not only does this ensure cognitive diversity is baked into the foundations of the business, but it goes a long way towards mitigating unconscious biases.
Understanding strengths allows employees, their colleagues and management to encourage people to achieve their best. Let’s be honest, providing free coffees, lunches and events as a reward is not enough and can be impersonal and boring. Instead, leaders should appeal to human nature; tailoring recognition programs to the individual personality traits that guide their team members.
For instance, I’ve found those with a competitive streak respond well when leaders are transparent around performance, and visually display how individuals are stacking up against customer service standards. Those with a lower competitive streak will benefit from being in a cognitively diverse team, with exposure to more competitive members driving them.
Providing employee feedback is also a lot simpler and much more meaningful when strengths are incorporated. A manager can coach an employee by identifying a strength, saying it serves them brilliantly in certain ways, and perhaps creates challenges in others. Together, the pair can work on flipping the strength from a negative to a positive. See how much more constructive that sounds than a blanket recommendation?
Ensuring our teams are cognitively diverse is not an overnight task, but steps can be taken to invest in technologies that allow us to determine where these strengths lie and how they can contribute to our overall missions.
Leaders have a responsibility to be cognisant of this type of inclusion, and those who start the journey now will reap the flow-on benefits from bringing together different approaches to problem solving.