Five practices to encourage diversity of thought

In an earlier post, we explored a new frontier in the diversity initiatives of organizations – diversity of thought. The focus of this frontier is on realizing the full potential of people, and in turn the organization, by acknowledging, appreciating and harnessing each person’s unique perspective and way of thinking.

According to Susan Woods, Managing Partner, Henderson Woods LLC, for a workplace, the reality is that greater diversity introduces greater complexity. The potential for misunderstanding and conflict is heightened. However, greater diversity also brings increased potential for innovative solution finding and enhanced performance. Here’s how managers can create room for benefits of diversity of thought.

Scott Page, an economist at the University of Michigan, recommends redefining hiring practices as a first step. He illustrated a unique way to hire people with an eye toward maximizing the diversity. In his study, 3 candidates – Jeff, Rose and Spencer – were asked the same 10 questions in a job interview. Jeff correctly answered 7, Rose 6, and Spencer 5. It would be common to hire Jeff or Rose because they scored high, and displayed consistency of knowledge. However, Page found that Spencer answered questions that the other two couldn’t. This proves that he knows and thinks differently, and hence is the perfect candidate to hire.

Also, beyond technical competencies, recruiters need to identify the cognitive abilities they desire from candidates, and then assess them in the interview. SAP AG, a German firm, does this well by recruiting people with mild autism, to use this population’s superior creative and mathematical abilities. Though this might be challenging from a talent management perspective, the firm gets to leverage unique talent, while creating meaningful opportunities for a group that is considered prohibitive by many.

Another key measure is propagated by Sylvia Hewlett, CEO of Center for Talent Innovation – choosing sponsors who help cognitively diverse thinkers find the appropriate application of their unique thinking styles, thus helping career advancement. Deloitte shares an example of military veterans returning from war, who have diverse skills and cognitive styles that organizations can use. For them, it’s a challenge to adjust in cultures outside of the military. Sponsors that can facilitate their transitions are key to an organization’s ability to incorporate cognitive diversity.

Since diversity essentially indicates differences, many leaders experience stress in managing differences within teams. It’s an instinctual response, where the unknown and uncomfortable makes us defensive. To engage with such differences, leaders need to build emotional intelligence, and rise above wanting validation – the reason why we seek similar people. This prevents group thinking. Beth Schill and Carmen Medina, researchers at Deloitte Consulting LLP say, in a well-run diverse team, disagreements don’t need to get personal – ideas either have or not have merit. For this, managers need to rethink conflict itself, shifting their perspective away from diminishing conflict’s negative effects and toward designing conflict that can push their teams.

While diversity of thought is the way to move forward, what we need to remember is that it can only stem from heterogeneity of culture, race, gender, socialization and ability. No one homogenous group of people can elicit such impact. Hence, all your initiatives need to invite in and celebrate differences.

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