top of page

Empowering Cognitive Diversity in Leadership Teams

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

In a time of accelerating change, increasing disruption, and heightened uncertainty, success demands unprecedented levels of resilience and flexibility from leaders and their teams. CEOs, in particular, must strike a dynamic balance between seemingly contradictory priorities - embracing risk while mitigating it, exploring new, untested business models while executing efficiently on the existing ones, capitalising on proprietary expertise while challenging established beliefs, and of course, driving short term yields while fuelling long term opportunities. It takes significant mental and emotional energy to maintain these tensions as an individual. But the challenge of leading an organisation, function or team that can operate effectively while sustaining unresolved tensions is best met by leaders that can harness the diverse strengths inherent in their leadership team and utilise them to mitigate conflict. Most teams possess a mix of working styles that offer unique and complementary strengths. It is this source of different ways of thinking, processing, and acting - our cognitive diversity - that leaders can tap into. A macro study published in Nature Human Behaviour reveals four personality types - average, reserved, role-model and self-centred. While people are obviously a mix of multiple different styles, the thing I found most interesting was how most individuals are characterised by only one of these types, but still, so many managers are unaware of the soft-skill strengths of their teams, how their key players fit into them and, most detrimentally, are hiring with no oversight of their current state so are jeopardising their future outcomes. We regularly converse with frustrated leaders who cannot unlock the value they think they can get from their leadership teams post-new hire. To help get ahead of this, I've put together three approaches to get the most out of the working style diversity on your team:

  • Make cognitive diversity work. Even if you do have decent representation, that could end up creating more headaches because of tissue rejection if not managed properly. To get the best out of every person, start by ensuring you have the essentials they need in place, for instance, a clear goal for Drivers, a broader context for Integrators, data for Guardians, and opportunities to brainstorm for Pioneers. Then provide them with ways to use that strength for the benefit of the broader group, for instance, asking a Guardian to research risks, asking a Pioneer to create different options, asking an Integrator to solicit input from key stakeholders, and asking a Driver to test a hypothesis. Also, by systematically raising the team's awareness of the differences in style (and their implications), a leader can, over time, cultivate trust among their leadership team and transform working style clashes into fruitful debates and tangible outcomes. Different people have different skills. By taking advantage of differences and the variety of strengths available, leaders add ample innovative capacity to their teams.

  • Visibly appreciate the difference of thought. People think and process in unique ways, yet it can be easy to overlook these differences or, worse, to assume that a different style is inferior to one's own. Particularly if leaders have a style that appears well-aligned with the company's priorities or positioning, they can be susceptible to dismissing a style that does not. For example, one leader told me, "We are a fast-paced organisation undergoing significant transformation. We can't afford to have people always trying to do things differently. It will slow us down." And yet, after further discussion with the wider team, it became clear that there was a need to redefine complex logistical processes to improve efficiency, exactly what the company needed to be successful and was lacking from the leader's current team's skill set. Companies guilty of "culture-fit" and "group think" mentality are the ones that can draw the highest value from cognitive diversity. It's up to the leadership teams within them to push for a greater diversity of thought and ensure it is championed and nurtured correctly.

  • Pipelining makes perfect. Your leadership team won't have a perfect balance across each type. And missing a perspective could have a major impact on the group's ability to calibrate. In the short term, as a stopgap, it's important to give explicit voice to any missing types by asking people to wear different hats and "think like" the missing type or having people lean into their secondary type if those characteristics are present there. In the long term, leaders should pipeline strong candidates with diverse profile types and working styles, something we find imperative when planning your teams of tomorrow. You can still have a gap even if you have all the types, though, if some styles are underrepresented - particularly because certain types are intrinsically more introverted and typically less eager to jump into the fray. In this situation, you can elevate those styles by giving them an explicit role on the team that requires their strengths, or by encouraging the minority types to speak first to make sure that their diverse perspective is represented before a cascade of the majority takes hold. Leaders can intentionally engineer leadership interactions to draw out divergent perspectives and cultivate complementary strengths, even if the composition of their team or the mix of contributions is unbalanced.

If you look for it, cognitive diversity is all around - but people like to fit in, so they are cautious about sticking their necks out. When we have a strong, homogenous culture (e.g. an engineering culture, an operational culture, or a relational culture), we stifle the natural cognitive diversity in groups through the pressure to conform. We may not even be aware that it is happening. To overcome these challenges, ensure your recruitment processes identify all forms of difference and recruit for cognitive diversity. And when you face a new, uncertain, complex situation, and everyone agrees on what to do, find someone who disagrees and cherish them.


At Clu, we're reinventing how job seekers find jobs by helping Employers get great at skills-based hiring. We are the most efficient and simple way to gain traction with underutilised talent communities at scale. Find out more by getting in touch with us. We'd love to hear from you.

bottom of page