Hiring for Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace

Hiring for Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace

One of the most important skills companies require is problem-solving. Consider the following problem which comes from Matthew Syed’s book, “Rebel Ideas: The Power of Thinking Differently”.

Suppose you are a doctor faced with a patient who has a malignant tumor in his stomach. It is impossible to operate on the patient, but unless the tumor is destroyed the patient will die. There is a kind of ray that can be used to destroy the tumor. If the rays reach the tumor all at once at a sufficiently high intensity, the tumor will be destroyed. Unfortunately, at this intensity, the healthy tissue that the rays pass through on the way to the tumor will also be destroyed. At lower intensities, the rays are harmless to healthy tissue, but they will not affect the tumor either. What type of procedure might be used to destroy the tumor with the rays and at the same time avoid destroying the healthy tissue?

When presented with problems like this, most people conclude that there is no solution. They may think the problem is impossible to solve. But it is not. The key to solving it and other problems like it, is cognitive diversity.

Diverse team of professionals engaged in a collaborative discussion with a digital tablet.

What is Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace? 

Cognitive diversity simply means including people with different ideas, experiences, and perspectives. An article from InStride describes seeking cognitive diversity as, “…hiring for culture-add rather than culture-fit.” 

The temptation for many organizations is to hire people that fit into the current culture. That virtually ensures limited cognitive diversity. A better approach is to examine job candidates with an eye to what they can add to the organization. 

Another important point to remember is that hiring for diversity and inclusion does not guarantee that you will get cognitive diversity. As Tom Schoenfelder points out in an article from Fortune, “demographic diversity is necessary but not sufficient for diversity of thought.”

Examples of Cognitive Diversity 

Remember the problem described in the introduction about the treatment for a malignant tumor? When presented with this problem, most people concluded it could not be solved. You might agree, but before you conclude this, consider this seemingly unrelated story:

A fortress was situated in the middle of the country, surrounded by farms and villages. Many roads led to the fortress through the countryside. A rebel general vowed to capture the fortress but learned the mines had been planted on each of the roads. The mines were set so that small bodies of men could pass over them safely, but any large force would detonate them. 

The general divided his armies into small groups and dispatched each group to the head of a different road. When all was ready, he gave the signal and each group marched down a different road. Each group continued down its road so that the entire army arrived together at the fortress at the same time. In this way, the general captured the fortress.

Can you see the solution to the medical problem now? If so, you have seen an example of cognitive diversity in action. As Syed points out in “Rebel Ideas”, “The solution is to set multiple ray guns around the patient to deliver 10 percent of the radiation with each gun. This destroys the tumor, but without the rays harming the healthy tissue.”

The Benefits of Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace

One of the most important benefits of cognitive diversity is gaining access to different perspectives. On the surface, these different perspectives may seem irrelevant to your company’s needs. It might also have seemed irrelevant to the doctors tasked with solving the tumor problem to hear a military story. But, that different perspective provides just the insight needed to solve a complex problem.

No matter how well-educated a group of employees is, they will have a tendency towards thinking alike as a group. This tendency can blind them to possible solutions to a problem. A major benefit to cognitive diversity is to counteract this trend towards groupthink. Often it only takes one or two people expressing a different idea to break through the conformity of groupthink and open the discussion to new directions. 

How to Hire for Cognitive Diversity 

When it comes to hiring for cognitive diversity, an important consideration to recognize is the nearly universal disposition to associate with people most like yourself. This bias will affect your hiring decisions unless you make a conscious effort to counter it. Here are some steps to take to help ensure you incorporate cognitive diversity into your workplace, as mentioned in an article on Tandemig.com:

Diversify your talent pool: When you seek out candidates for a position, be sure to draw from a wide pool of talent. Write your job descriptions with an eye toward bringing in people from a wide range of backgrounds. If your job pool is not diverse enough, consider what you might be doing to cause candidates to self-select out of the job pool.

Go beyond your current network and recruitment practices: If your organization is not cognitively diverse, that may mean your past hiring practices were not effective in this respect. Make a conscious effort to recruit in different ways to gain this diversity. 

Create an in-depth interview process: Take the time to get to know a prospective candidate’s background and experience and focus on how they can add to the organization, rather than solely on how they can fit in. 

Foster a culture that allows diversity to thrive: Ultimately, the level of cognitive diversity in your organization is a function of the organization’s culture. A cognitively diverse organization is one where different insights are invited and celebrated. Problem-solving is looked on as an opportunity to cast a wide net for possible solutions. In this kind of workplace, the view that “We do things this way because we always have,” is not a valid argument. 


Cognitive diversity can be a real asset to an organization, but it doesn’t always happen naturally. Organizations often need to be deliberate in their efforts to foster and support such diversity. Thankfully, KnowledgeCity is here to help you do this. Download our free guide to Creating a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion to get started!

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