Respecting, processing and cross-pollinating thoughts from diverse cultures will advance team performance and productivity to levels never seen before. Cognitive diversity, when applied across cultures, creates an environment for innovation and the achievement of desired performance levels.

Cognitive diversity, defined as the extent to which a group reflects differences in knowledge, beliefs, preferences and perspectives, is a pillar upon which innovation can be built. When applied across cultures, cognitive diversity has the potential to not only create the right environment to retain talent, but also to unleash the diverse talent within. Tapping into cultural diversity, while having its risks and challenges, will position the workplace to be the attractive fertile ground for innovation where cross-cultural boundaries are prospects for new ideas and synergies.

Commercially, there are many corporations that have adopted this approach and used it to enable innovation, which in turn promotes expansion and growth. For example, one of the success stories is cosmetics giant L’Oreal. Sumita Banerjee, vice-president of talent recruitment, states: “Diverse talent for our organization is critical to our ability to build our business and drive future growth.” L’Oreal USA acknowledges that recruitment of diverse talent is not its only goal, it is also putting that talent to good use. The company considers diversity, when properly leveraged, a competitive advantage and a pillar of consumer engagement.

In a public service environment, the understanding of the application of innovation through diversity came about in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Within the intelligence and security community, there was a realization that the traditional system did not enable culturally diverse talent to contribute to an agile and comprehensive assessment. The result was the increased use of cognitive diversity within intelligence and security cells to deliver timely, conceptually based and culturally insightful assessments.  

There are three correlated benefits to promoting cognitive diversity:

1)    Productivity and agility. This potential benefit to organizations is based on the synergies cognitive diversity create. The team’s diversity will enable agility when dealing with ambiguity by examining a chronic deficiency through different lenses. The same diversity will lead to increased productivity given the positive impact employee engagement has, especially when their cultural and disciplinary views are sought and are integrated.
2)    Workplace morale. This requires bold leadership and determination. Often, accommodating the differences – as opposed to leveraging the differences – limits the potential of the human resource investments. Cross-cultural integration is not about accommodating, it is about respecting differences and creating a positive dynamic by examining challenges and opportunities through different prisms. The workplace will become a hub for positive ideas and synergies.
3)    Innovation in diversity. Traditional bias does not naturally offer a new solution to a new circumstance. Yet this will persist if organizations continue to be oblivious to, and do not reach out to the diversity within their core. Recognizing and leveraging diversity, and maximizing the resources’ potential ought to be the organization’s material and moral obligation; the workplace will then become an engine for innovation.

The few steps listed below will help managers build the environment to leverage cognitive diversity to innovate:

1.    Identify, not evaluate. One of the initial steps in any meaningful effort to leverage cross-cultural capacities is to identify a team’s diversity. Managers may mistakenly feel restrained by political correctness. Boldly identifying members’ differences should be perceived as an investment that, while carrying some risk, will lead toward cognitive diversity.
2.    Understand, not translate. The natural reaction to new and different ideas is to try to fit a new concept into the traditional frame of thinking. This is a common mistake where the phrase “lost in translation” applies. Yet a diverse team will naturally generate ideas and concepts based on leveraging the differences among them. To build on this fact and to overcome the tendency to traditionalize new concepts, a manager and his/her team members must learn to absorb ambiguous ideas and evolve with these ambiguities until the concept becomes clearer. This will allow the time for the team members and organizational leaders to recalibrate their frame of thinking to include newly introduced concepts.  
3.    Trust, not loyalty. Often, trust and loyalty are interchangeable in peoples’ minds. In instances of cognitive diversity integration efforts, they are quite the opposite. Once trust is established, employees will feel at ease expressing their cultural or disciplinary perspectives; when a climate of loyalty is established, staunch allegiances are likely to develop at the expense of good ideas and honesty. An environment of trust creates independent leaders whereas an environment of personal loyalty creates interdependent pleasers.  
4.    Social infrastructure, not organizational structure. The desired cross-cultural communication and integration behaviours leading toward cognitive diversity should gradually be adopted by smaller groups bottom-up, while the principle is championed and exemplified by the leader. This approach could take various forms based on the situation of the organization. However, it should be manifested through changes within the social infrastructure of the organization as opposed to a structured, organizational top-down approach. An institutional framework that purposefully imposes a desired behaviour is bound to take more time and face more resistance than an accepted behaviour resulting from informal relationships among smaller entities, groups or individuals. The latter is likely to create a desired and lasting pattern of behaviour between employees.

Author Scott E. Page, the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, promoted the benefits of diversity based on his mathematical modelling and case studies. “(D)iverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.”