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Is Your Organisation Suffering From Sameness?

By October 31, 2018June 4th, 2019Culture
Is your org suffering from sameness

How to diversify thinking in your workplace

We talk about diversity and inclusion in categories: generation, gender, ethnicity, LGBTI, disability and culture. Less common are conversations about diversity of thought. Cognitive diversity may be a new category of organisational diversity, but its potential is incontrovertible.

Consider the business meeting: According to research, people are attending more meetings than ever before; up to an average of 23 hours a week. And in almost every one, people bring something along with them: Cognitive bias.

Defined by Chegg as “a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, remembering … often occurring as a result of holding onto one’s preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information”, cognitive bias needs to be better acknowledged and understood, particularly in the context of consensual decision-making.

Called conformity bias, or group think, the effects of collective cognitive bias can be dangerous in the workplace. Why? Because a lot of the time, we’re not even aware that it’s happening.

Neuroscience shows that our brains are hardwired to favour the familiar. Because sameness and the status quo feel safer to us, we’re more likely to listen to, and agree with, ideas that affirm our own attitudes and beliefs.

Worse still, against this framework of familiarity, unconsciously, our brains lead us to distrust the unfamiliar, the unknown or the unusual. From stifling innovation to skewing performance reviews and recruitment, unconscious cognitive bias is at work all the time.

And organisational culture suffers because of it.

In a workplace where people look the same, talk the same and think the same, people have a tendency to stop thinking for themselves. In research conducted by MIT, homogenous groups are “less rigorous” in their approach to decision-making, and are more prone to make mistakes. Diverse groups, on the other hand, have been found to be more “objective and independent”, and to yield more “creative solutions”.

The economic benefits of diverse teams have been well documented. According to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for ethnic and gender diversity experience superior financial returns compared with their industry peers.

So, diversity benefits everyone. But how does cognitive diversity benefit organisations? And what is it, exactly?

A helpful way to think of cognitive diversity is different ways of problem-solving, and different perspectives on reality. Any thought that runs contrary to the status quo or the dominant ideological norm is considered diverse. And there is growing consensus in business that cognitive diversity – and neurodiverse employees (i.e. people with dyslexia, autism and ADHD, for example) – is a competitive advantage.

We witnessed a great example of cognitive diversity, recently, in a human-centred design brainstorm. Participants were trying to frame a design challenge around their target users; a group of young, petty criminals. The designers’ solution sought to help rehabilitate these young offenders into legitimate entrepreneurs.

But it wasn’t until the designers had met with several of the criminals, and spent time immersed in their day-to-day realities, that the group realised its unconscious negative bias towards them. What emerged was a new-found respect for the ingenuity, inventiveness and self-motivation of the young offenders – defining characteristics of entrepreneurialism. In the end, the socio-development solution was co-created by the designers and the former criminals. It is in practice, currently, as an effective model of offender rehabilitation

But what of the workplace, where cognitive bias and value judgement may seem less outright than the above example, but that are nonetheless still pervasive and potentially damaging? How can we diversify our thinking as individuals, and collectively, as teams?

Five steps to diversify your thinking

1. Know your own mind

Mindfulness teaches us to become more self-aware, and to observe our thoughts as and when they arise. When we bring this presence of mind to meetings, and any situation where decisions are called for, we can become more conscious and deliberate. Essentially, we learn to choose our reactions and to make our decisions consciously, rather than to fall back on our old, “default” or habitual reactions.

2. Reality check

It’s useful to widen your frame of cognitive reference. When you are presented with the “facts” of a situation, ask yourself what else might be true? Widening our intellectual parameters in this way opens our minds to other possibilities and different perspectives. Rather than reaching for the security of what feels known and familiar, try to see another way. It may feel unsettling at first, but the mind enjoys probing new frontiers and possibilities. We are born to explore and discover.

3. Consider others

If a decision is required of you or your team, take the time to consider how it will impact others. Better yet, before you make a decision, find out from the people who will be impacted, what they think – and feel. Too often in business, pressure is put on people to make decisions quickly and expediently, which over time can lead to a lack of empathy and indifference. By thinking of the people impacted by your decision as key stakeholders, you involve and include them. That’s sound thinking.

4. Time out

We’ve mentioned the pressure that can surround group decision-making. Sometimes it can’t be avoided. But a great rule of thumb, particularly in situations where consensus seems to have been reached quickly and easily, is to invite people to reconvene – and in the meantime, to reexamine the decision. This gives people time to revisit the situation, and to consider alternate viewpoints and perspectives. A time out may be just the thing for a better qualified decision.

5. Question authority

A good leader is one who welcomes alternate points of view. If you find yourself in a workplace where decision-making is dogmatic, and where conformity bias is prevalent, raise questions. Also, frame your questions within a constructive context. Ask if all the angles have been considered yet. Or if the decision-making process would benefit from more or different feedback. Raising questions like these interrupts the momentum of conformity bias. Essentially, it spells the end of group think.

Sure, these steps may take time to implement and follow, but with practice they can lead to better decision-making in the workplace, where people are given the scope to learn and grow. Because their minds have been opened.

Felicity Hinton

Felicity Hinton

Felicity Hinton is the founder and chief strategist at Humanist, a culture-change agency that helps transform people for business success. Previously, she worked in human performance solution design, and advertising. She is a certified change manager (UCT), has a Bachelor’s degree in English (Wits), and has won several awards for her business writing, including a Silver Quill.

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