How diversity can help us work together more effectively
27 May 2019
Embracing diversity implies recognising the qualities that make people different, such as age, gender, ethnicity and beliefs, and including a diverse range of people. Embracing ‘cognitive diversity’ is the inclusion of people who think and observe the world differently. Different people have different ways of organising information and addressing problems, which means that true diversity is achieved through the interaction of people with different personalities, beliefs, values, perspectives, and mental processes.
Cognitive diversity is essential for team success, with research demonstrating that cognitively diverse groups perform better than groups with members who think alike. Researchers Hong and Page (2004) investigated the best approaches for reaching an informed decision, looking at whether it was better to form a group with participants who achieved the highest scores in a given task, or random participants of mixed ability whose performance was good, but not the best. Because participants in the first group displayed similar thinking and problem-solving methods, their cognitive diversity was reduced and their capabilities cancelled out. In fact, the random group performed better because they used a wide variety of problem-solving methods.
Studies have also confirmed that diverse teams improve performance in terms of creativity, decision-making, conflict management, trust, and psychological safety. Consequently, an organisational culture that encourages thought-conformity leads to stagnation, demonstrating the importance of encouraging diversity in the workplace and in any movement.
Gathering a cognitively diverse team is not always easy, due to our unconscious biases. Bias is an unfounded belief in favour or against something or someone, held by a person, a group, or an institution, that can have positive or negative consequences. Because biases stem from our natural instinct to categorise and organise the social world, stereotypes about people are usually developed without our conscious awareness. They can be triggered in certain situations, such as when multitasking or working under pressure.
Unconscious biases that make diversity implementation difficult include ‘confirmation bias’, which makes us give significance and weight to a piece of information about a person in order to confirm a pre-existing belief we have about them. ‘Affinity bias’ also poses a problem; this is when we perceive people similar to us more positively because we unconsciously prefer perspectives similar to our own. These biases restrict the objective and effective assessment of people, as well as their individual potential and contributions to potential decisions.
Reaching our full potential
There are ways to overcome these biases and foster cognitive diversity. Employees can be offered training to recognise their own unconscious biases, with the aim of improving understanding and collaboration with their colleagues. We can also develop work environments based on respect and openness, where people feel comfortable to express themselves – whether that means proposing ideas, asking questions, or disagreeing.
Awareness needs to be developed at all levels of an organisation and conscious efforts made to achieve diversity. At ProVeg, we welcome those willing to commit to our shared purpose and actively implement best practices to ensure a diverse team, with the support of our Diversity and Inclusivity Working Group. We also value the diverse range of contributions of our current team and endeavour to create a safe and supportive working environment. Creatively expanding an organisation or movement to include everyone allows us to collectively reach our full potential!
Hong, Lu, and Scott E. Page. “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers.” PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 Nov. 2004, Available at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC528939/.