Embracing Cognitive Diversity: The New Golden Rule for Effective Collaboration

What if I told you that the Golden Rule—the one that says “treat others the way you want to be treated”—can actually kill collaboration and innovation?

My area of expertise is teams and innovation. I’ve seen the Golden Rule create conflict, miscommunication, and frustration when people expect their teammates to approach a challenge the same way they do. They get annoyed when others do things differently.“Why is Paul asking so many questions?”

“Why is Sally coming up with yet another idea, when we already agreed on one?”

“Why is Akeem slowing down the process and looking at a hundred variations of this idea?”

“Why does Alicia keep saying ‘Let's actually do something and move forward!’

Let’s be honest. We all enjoy working with people who think like we do. But diversity, especially diversity of thinking, actually helps us find better solutions

We often think of diversity in terms of age, ethnicity and gender. But a study by Reynolds and Lewis published in the March 2017 Harvard Business Review showed that cognitive diversity has the biggest impact on performance. In a strategic execution exercise, the researchers found that age, ethnicity, and gender did not make a difference, but teams with cognitive diversity—a difference in perspective or information processing style—performed significantly better than homogenous ones.

They pointed out two obstacles that get in the way of cognitive diversity: 1) the fact that it’s not visible, and 2) the fact that we unconsciously avoid it; we hire and surround ourselves with people who think like us.

My work is to make thinking visible on teams. I teach my clients an explicit problem-solving process and a New Golden Rule: See others for who they are and embrace our differences in thinking.

For example, I work with Mark. He’s a VP in a Fortune 500 tech company. He likes to share his new ideas with his team, but his team doesn't seem that interested. They don’t contribute much to the discussion. When I mentioned the New Golden Rule, he got intrigued.

“Can you help me and my team collaborate better?”

“Of course,” I said. “So, let's talk about how we solve problems. You’ve probably heard of many processes, but at the core, problem solving is simple and universal.” One process, the FourSight model, describes problem-solving in four stages:

  1. Clarify to understand the challenge.
  2. Ideate to come up with ideas to address it.
  3. Develop ideas into viable plan.
  4. Implement the solution.

While the process may be universal, research shows that people have more energy for some stages than others. Those are “thinking preferences.” Professor Gerard Puccio from Buffalo State created the FourSight Thinking Profile assessment to measure thinking preferences.

The assessment shows whether you have a high, neutral, or low preference when you clarify, ideate, develop, and implement. In problem solving stages where you have a high preference, you may feel “in the flow” and energized. In areas of low preferences, you may feel less engaged and less interested. The combination of your preferences is your thinking profile.

I’ll share my own thinking profile. (My team, and especially my kids, can tell you how accurate this is.) I have two thinking preferences. When I face a challenge, first, I want to clarify the challenge. I will ask questions, dig deep into the data, and interview people to be sure I understand it clearly. Next, I want to come up with ideas—lots of ideas—to solve the challenge. But my energy goes down when it’s time to develop and implement my ideas.

I have enough training to know that developing and implementing are important, and I will do them when needed, but I'm much better off collaborating with others who have different preferences, particularly those who prefer to develop and implement. Together, we make a great team.

So, let's go back to Mark and the challenge with his team. The FourSight Thinking Profile confirmed that Mark had a high preference to come up with lots of ideas—to ideate. His team, however, preferred to make things happen—to implement. So, Mark wanted more ideas from his team, and his team wanted more action from Mark.

Each side was using the old Golden Rule, expecting the other side to deliver what they wanted most. Through that lens, both sides were failing.

Once they started using the New Golden Rule—“See others for who they are and embrace our differences in thinking”— people saw each team member as a unique asset. Mark was able to be himself—a visionary leader, bringing new ideas. He had a new appreciation of his team’s ability to take his ideas forward. The team learned to appreciate Mark for his innovative ideas, knowing he didn’t expect them to act on all of them.

We all want to be seen for who we are, to be appreciated for the way we think, and to be able to contribute fully to the teams and challenges we care about. When we become aware that we think differently, and we benefit from those differences, collaboration is more fun and more effective.

I use this approach with my family. In the past, planning family trips was a nightmare. We all ended up being frustrated with the process and not really liking the vacation. Now it is more like a team challenge: Who loves to research the destinations? Who gets the best deal on plane tickets? Who wants to book the hotel nights? Who likes to chat with locals to learn about unexpected side trips? We each end up doing the thing we enjoy most and getting better results.

We live in a world with complex problems we can only solve with multiple perspectives. We need to learn to leverage our uniqueness, rather than our uniformity to be successful. It’s time for a New Golden Rule:

See others for who they are, and embrace our differences in thinking.

Watch Helene's TEDx talk here.

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Helene Cahen

Helene Cahen is an experienced innovation consultant, trainer, coach, and FourSight Certified Facilitator, with more than 20 years of insight into market research, communications and new product development.