Take a step back for a moment and think about the make-up of your management team. Is it comprised of people who, although they might not always agree, tend to think and approach work in pretty much the same way? Or are your team meetings punctuated by healthy debate and populated by colleagues who have very different working styles and perspectives on how things could be done?

If Roffey Park’s latest Management Agenda report is to be believed, you are more likely to be in the first camp. Its annual survey found that although our workplaces are becoming more diverse (in terms of gender and cultural background for example), organisations still have some way to go in exploiting cognitive diversity.

Citing research by Reynolds and Lewis (2017) published in Harvard Business Review (Teams solve problems faster when they’re more cognitively diverse), the reports suggest that it is vital that organisations avoid ‘group think’ and the widespread practice of managers recruiting in their own image. When people with varying viewpoints are brought together to drive a project forward or tackle a problem, their combined efforts can far surpass what any group of similar-minded individuals could achieve.

So what can HR do to help organisations embrace the concept of cognitive diversity and build workforces where diversity is about much more than the ‘physical’ manifestations of difference?

1. Educate leaders to encourage open debate

Leaders can be the first to feel threatened when someone challenges their world view. We have a tendency to regard conflict as something that is negative and to be avoided at all costs. But in fact, healthy conflict (the respectful expression of differing views, ideas and opinions) is the lifeblood of the innovation organisations need if they are to remain competitive. HR needs to make an understanding of how to embrace and manage healthy conflict a core part of management development training. It’s about building a cardre of managers who are open to challenge (both personally and within their teams), have the confidence to actively encourage different ways of thinking and the courage to stand up for members of their team who may occasionally ruffle feathers by departing from the ‘norm’ or openly questioning the status quo.

2. Hold leaders accountable for creating inclusive cultures

The Roffey Park research found that recognising and rewarding dissent and challenge is an approach taken by less than a third of organisations in their efforts to encourage difference. The old adage of what gets measured gets done holds true when it comes to cognitive diversity. The development of open and collaborative cultures should be included as part of manager’s KPIs. Psychometric tools such as MBTI and Insights (all of which should be delivered by accredited professionals) will also help managers identify the working styles that are less well represented in their teams and improve their understanding of how to get diverse groups of people working together more effectively.

3. Develop competency frameworks that reinforce cognitive diversity

HR can do much to support cognitive diversity by reviewing the competency frameworks that underpin the organisation’s recruitment, development and performance management processes. An appreciation of the true power of cognitive diversity (and diversity in all its forms) and the skills to leverage it effectively should be a red thread that runs through everything from the way decisions are made about new hires, to the type of training the organisation commissions and delivers, the goals that managers set their teams and the way employees are recognised and rewarded.

As Roffey consultant Ana Karakusevic points out in the report, focusing on this aspect of diversity may feel challenging, but is essential practice in our changing world of work. “When done well, this approach can foster a culture of true curiosity and not taking our world-view for granted, which can lead to greater understanding, collaboration and innovation,” she says.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.