Most companies recognise the need for, and benefits of, diversity when recruiting. But sometimes they forget the idea of diversity of thought (“cognitive diversity”): this presents dangers and misses opportunities.

It’s a natural tendency to hire people like you or people who agree with you, despite a recognition that the best teams have a range of skills, experience and attitudes. It’s also natural to want to be seen to belong to the team by agreeing with the majority.

That, however, leads to “groupthink”, an approach to decision-making that reinforces existing beliefs and ignores new or different ideas.

Scott Page, an expert on Diversity and author of The Difference, illustrates the value of cognitive diversity by likening it to a toolbox: a good toolbox has lots of good quality but different tools, not just a set of high-quality screwdrivers.

But cognitive diversity can lead to disagreement and conflict as individuals express different opinions and challenge each others’ ideas – and this can be uncomfortable. A good leader will encourage constructive disagreement and create a safe environment where team members can speak out and express views that might be at odds with everyone else.

Five ideas to help avoid “groupthink”:

  1. When recruiting, look for a willingness to disagree or challenge conventional wisdom
  2. In any decision-making meeting, appoint someone to actively disagree with any proposals.
  3. Borrow from the military world and create a “red-team”, a few team members who act as challengers to existing process and policies
  4. Bring in colleagues from other teams, to watch and comment as independent observers of the decision-making process, able to ask questions team members might hold back
  5. Take time: if everyone has agreed quickly to a course of action, spend a bit more time thinking about the implications of the decision – and what a different decision might mean.

“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

Alfred Sloan, GM Executive Committee meeting.

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