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Blog | 1 Jul 2021

Cognitive Diversity: Critical Yet Often Ignored

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

Cognitive Diversity: Critical Yet Often Ignored

One of the business drivers for diversity and inclusion is its capacity to raise an organisation’s competitive advantage, particularly in terms of enhancing creativity and innovation. The rationale is clear- to create a diverse workforce where people are able to express themselves, to contribute, challenge, collaborate, co-create and most importantly to innovate. This highlights the need for two ingredients crucial to enabling diversity of thought: diverse people and an inclusive environment. 

Focus on Demographic Diversity

To date, the main focus of corporate D&I strategies in Asia has been on diverse representation. There is little consensus on what that means as it is largely dependent on the population the company wishes to represent.  However, most of the initiatives that companies in Asia undertake are focused on attracting, retaining and developing talent, while creating a healthy leadership pipeline for people with disabilities, women, LGBT+, young and local talent. Ironically, whilst the end goal is to achieve diversity of thought, one strand of diversity that has largely been over-looked, or not fully leveraged, is cognitive diversity. By this, we are referring to the inherently different thinking styles of individuals.

Why is cognitive diversity not included as a diversity strand that organisations typically focus on? There are multiple reasons, foremost of which is the lack of widely agreed upon ways in which to categorise and measure cognitive diversity. Also, the lack of representation, biases, and discriminatory practices experienced by certain demographic groups are very real issues. And so, the usual practice is to focus on representative demographics. The assumption is that a person’s demographic traits and background influence their experience and worldview and so, by bringing top talent from diverse backgrounds into the workplace, the organisation can access diverse perspectives. There is some merit to this assumption as there is a correlation between the two. However, an emphasis on demographics alone has its shortcomings and does not necessarily lead to diversity of thought.

Demographic Diversity Alone is Not Enough

Community Business’ recently published Cognitive Diversity in the Asian Context highlights some of the pitfalls that can result from seeing demographic diversity, as an acceptable proxy for cognitive diversity, or from ignoring the inclusion component of the equation including:

  • Tokenism – This happens when symbolic effort is made to ensure certain groups are given a seat at the table, to give the appearance of inclusion. However, one cannot assume that outward diversity automatically signals true cognitive diversity. It can also reinforce stereotypes or promote the idea that the ‘diverse’ person is speaking on behalf of the entire population they are a part of.
  • The danger of ‘culture fit’ – Whilst it is important to hire people who align with your organisational values, focusing on ‘culture fit’ can lead to hiring bias and other forms of bias in the workplace. Often ‘fitting into the culture’ is interpreted to mean that the person can quickly adapt to how the team socialises and works together. This however can quickly extend to ‘not rocking the boat’ or challenging the status quo – in effect, undoing the hard work of hiring diverse talent.

To be clear, demographic diversity and representation are an integral part of building diverse and inclusive organisations. However, this is really just the tip of an iceberg and cognitive diversity can be a way of providing a more comprehensive view of these individuals’ complex identities. Community Business views it is as another strand or facet of diversity, different from, but intrinsically linked with demographic diversity. 

Defining Cognitive Diversity

Cognition is comprised of:

  • Personality
  • Individual motivations
  • Existing banks of knowledge and acquired experience
  • Mental models used in ideation, information processing and decision making

 

Source: Community Business (2021) Cognitive Diversity in the Asian Context

Underlying all this is an internal values system which determines an individual’s judgement of what is morally acceptable or not.

However, to fully understand the individual, the wider cultural factors and local D&I dynamics must also come into play.  

These three spheres are deeply intertwined and interrelated, but they represent a means by which to understand an individual more holistically – in addition to those specific diversity facets that companies typically focus their efforts towards.

Recommendations

Community Business has identified three areas of action that organisations should consider in promoting cognitive diversity as part of their D&I approach:

  1. Acknowledge Difference (Diversity) – provide a vocabulary with which employees can get comfortable around the idea of cognitive diversity and what it means to your organization.
  2. Build Safe, Inclusive Spaces (Belonging) – celebrate different ways of thinking and communicating and find ways of working and collaborating that suit the different people in your teams.
  3. Foster Conscious Engagement (Inclusion) – create processes that expand how we typically engage people in order to encourage diverse individuals to provide feedback, contribute ideas, and be an active participant in significant business decisions and operations.

To read more about the subject, download Cognitive Diversity in the Asian Context.

 

About the Author: Tina Arcilla, Head of Diversity & Inclusion in Asia Network (DIAN) at Community Business