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  • Dr. Kim Stephens

Diversity Bonuses Make Teams Better: Cognitive Diversity in Action

Updated: Sep 26, 2019


When we talk about Diversity, our minds often go to the characteristics of people we see – gender, race, ethnicity, disability, etc. Identity diversity is very important. But if we stop there, we could be missing out on the cognitive diversity – the differences in the way we think – that will lead us to innovation and creativity.

Diversity among people can mean so many things beyond demographics – education level, life experiences, childhood upbringing, interests, being left-handed, and so on. And Diversity Bonuses are the benefits you get from having this group of diverse people gathered together – their ideas, perspectives, life experiences, mental models, etc.

In his book, Diversity Bonuses, Scott Page refers to the recipe for success as having two parts: 1) Getting the right people together in the room (diversity) and 2) Creating the right space for them to produce bonuses (inclusion) (p. 219).

Focusing on the diversity aspect, to get the right people in the room, we need to think about how we are hiring or assembling teams. Often the team as a whole is the last thing we are thinking of. We are looking at the individual in isolation – his/her individual skills and talents. What we should be doing is looking at the makeup of the team. What is its “cognitive repertoire?” Who is already on the team and what do they bring to the table? Taking the team’s characteristics, background, heuristics, models, knowledge, etc. into account, what is missing?

For example, If you have five white males who graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Economics, do you need one more of the same? Chances are these men have similar backgrounds, were trained by the same professors, took the same group of classes (learning the same models) and had similar experiences after graduation. How they perceive the world and the base of their knowledge will be similar, so their contributions may be the same. If you have five people who all look the same, talk the same and act the same, you don’t need five of them. You only need one of them. The challenge is to add someone to the team who brings new insight, who has a different perspective based on his/her experiences. And yes, race or gender could be part of that, just like being LGBT+ or a person with a disability could be.

Inclusion is the second and crucial part of realizing diversity bonuses. It does not matter how diverse your team is if they don’t feel comfortable contributing. They need to know that their viewpoints and life experiences will be appreciated. A culture of inclusion encourages people to speak up and seeks to engage the differences in employees. It takes a strong leader to invite others to share their opinions, especially if they differ from his/her own. If you have a meeting with one person talking and everyone agreeing – this is not inclusion. In fact, if you have total agreement every time, you should start to question the value of the team. If your solution or decision is always right, why do you need a team? Instead, you want people that offer different insights, who see things a little differently, who can point out opportunities or mistakes in reasoning. This is the beauty of having cognitive diversity on a team. You can then anticipate what can go wrong or right because you have assembled your own private diverse focus group. And you can tap into that diversity for new ideas.

Page says that we often fall prey to the meritocracy fallacy – “the belief that the best team consists of the best individuals (128).” Read that sentence again before you start to say, “Well, of course, we want the best people.” He says this about the construction of a team – a team is made up of individuals working together. You can’t have a football team of all All-American quarterbacks. You need players with different skills – running backs, defensive linemen, kickers, etc. The old cliché – there is no “I” in team – could be a good slogan for diversity bonuses.

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Page, Scott E., The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

#diversitybonus #diversity #cognitivediversity

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