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The conversation around diversity has moved on significantly in recent years. Most organisations have refined messaging and policies surrounding their D&I strategy and some even have full, dedicated teams leading on it. As is now enshrined in corporate-narrative, the ability for companies to leverage diversity in experiences, culture and background is a strong driver of performance.

But there is one key element that can be overlooked as companies seek to become more diverse: cognitive diversity. This oversight is having a negative impact on the overall respect and effectiveness of diversity strategies but also on how businesses are utilising and mobilising diversity to complement business objectives.

Cognitive diversity is the inclusion of people who have different styles of working and can offer unique perspectives because they think differently. Unlike demographic diversity, which focuses on achieving a mixture of statistical characteristics such as gender, ethnicity or age, cognitive diversity focuses on achieving a mixture of how people carry out intellectual activities, such as making associations or drawing conclusions.

Teams that reflect cognitive diversity solve complex problems faster than teams composed of individuals who approach problem-solving in the same way, researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis[1] have discovered. When faced with new and uncertain situations, teams composed of cognitively diverse individuals deploy different modes of thinking to tackle the challenge at hand. The result is accelerated learning and performance. Meanwhile, teams composed of people who address complex problems, in the same way, are hampered by a lack of versatility.

Promoting greater cognitive diversity in teams can be challenging when the natural inclination of leaders is often to select people who have a similar approach either to themselves or to whoever filled a role previously. But a culture of innovation depends on diverse thinking and learning styles, and work is changing rapidly. What has worked in the past probably won’t work in the present or the future.

Academic reviews[2] have noted that strategies that approach diversity with ‘demographic optics’ only have several methodological limitations; notably, the inability to explain uncertain variables, which warrants caution, leaving the whole diversity programme and endorsement open to criticism or worse, being deprioritised.

Demographic diversity absolutely sets us up to achieve more from cognitive diversity by default; people who are from different places, who look different, are likely to have had different experiences resulting in them doing things in different ways and leveraging different perspectives. However, if your goal is to have people who behave and think in different ways to drive innovation, you should focus less on their gender, nationality, and ethnicity, and more on how they behave and think.  On the other hand, if your goal is to increase demographic diversity, to ensure better customer appeal or access deeper talent pools, don’t assume that it will automatically translate into cognitive diversity or financial performance.

This isn’t to say stop promoting demographically diverse workforces as this has multiple, tangible business benefits. We are merely highlighting that we need to correlate the outcomes and evolve the metrics we place against cognitive (business-outcome focused) vs demographic (culture-outcome focused) diversity. We must recognise that a workplace that’s demographically diverse can still easily be cognitively uniform, e.g. when someone in the C-suite prefers candidates who have graduated from a school, it doesn’t mean that Black or Trans* candidates won’t succeed, it will just mean that they are more likely to think, behave and operate in a certain way.


[2] When Passionate Advocates Meet Research on Diversity, Does the Honest Broker Stand a Chance? Alice H. Eagly,

Northwestern University