Cognitive Diversity: How it Can Lead to Team Success


Based on Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking by Matthew Syed

Why Cognitive Diversity Can Save Lives and Lead to Team Success

A recent executive order from the current administration asserts that US taxpayer dollars should not be spent to teach diversity and inclusion in Federal agencies. The order claims that these trainings “perpetuat[e] racial stereotypes and division and can use subtle coercive pressure to ensure conformity of viewpoint.” However, author Matthew Syed details in his 2019 book Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking how workforce homogeneity in the Federal government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) led to their failure to thwart the 9/11 terror attacks. Syed argues that lack of diversity causes “conformity of viewpoint” and endangers lives of people living in the US. Most CIA officers hired since the agency’s founding in 1947 have been white, male, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Syed explains. Even though folks with those demographic markers do not have the same life experiences, they are likely to have similar enough perspectives to create collective blindspots. (19, 20) Syed assures that:

“This is not a criticism of white, Protestant, male Americans; quite the reverse. It is an argument that white, Protestant, male American analysts are being let down if they are placed in a team lacking diversity.” (25)

In the years leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, CIA officers viewed Osama bin Laden’s televised threats as unimportant because they appeared to originate from technologically backwards people living in caves. (21) Syed points out that if the CIA had employed Muslim officers, those officers would have noticed that bin Laden leveraged powerful Muslim symbolism and gestures to galvanize followers. (25) Until 1998, the CIA didn’t even have officers who spoke Pashto, which is one of the two official languages of Afghanistan. (25) How did the top intelligence agency in the world succumb to the pitfalls of homogeneity? The CIA relies on the old argument that there is a trade off when you hire for diversity instead of excellence. (13) That only individual merit and achievement will lead to group success whereas creating diverse teams is a dangerous distraction. The CIA asserts that national security must take priority over “political correctness.” That might seem correct, but Syed cautions that this thought is a “false and perilous dichotomy.” (13) He references a research experiment where Japanese people and American people were asked to look at the same underwater scene. Americans could describe the three fish in the scene with great detail but were not aware of the overall context. The Japanese people, on the other hand, noticed the river and water first then the fish as an afterthought. They noticed the context. The Americans came from a more individualistic perspective whereas the Japanese came from a more interdependent perspective. Both offer valuable frames of reference that when combined create a “more comprehensive grasp of reality.” (16) Diversity of perspective is an essential ingredient to successful teams, rather than a hindrance. Syed notes that there is a difference between this cognitive diversity and demographic diversity. Cognitive diversity includes differences of perspective, insights, experiences and thinking styles. (15) Demographic diversity includes differences of gender, race, age and religion. The two can overlap but demographic diversity does not always guarantee cognitive diversity.

In Rebel Ideas, Syed’s overarching argument is that: “harnessing the power of cognitive diversity is set to become a key source of competitive advantage, and the surest route to reinvention and growth.” With fewer blindspots, cognitively diverse teams can achieve greater success than their homogenous counterparts. He cites the following as success stories:

  • A study by Professor Chad Sparber, an American economist, found that an increase in racial diversity of one standard deviation increased productivity by more than 25 percent in legal services, health services and finance. (19)
  • A McKinsey analysis of companies in Germany and the United Kingdom found that return on equity was 66 per cent higher for firms with executive teams in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity than for those in the bottom quartile. For the United States, the return on equity was 100 per cent higher. (19)

In contrast, homogenous teams ‘mirror’ each other’s blindspots and reinforce them. This leads people to ”form judgements that combine excessive confidence with grave error” (20). The kind of bravado that leads an administration to issue an executive order banning all diversity training in Federal agencies, for example. Syed acknowledges that working in diverse teams is less comfortable than working in homogenous ones. That’s why the CIA hires people that look like current employees. It’s comfortable. (11) In Rebel Ideas, he posits that because “[a] startlingly high proportion of staff at the CIA had grown up in middle-class families” and had “endured little financial hardship[,]” they were unable to draw upon life experiences “that might have added formative insights to the intelligence process” during the years leading up to the 9/11 attack. If the CIA wants to fulfill its mission to “[p]reempt threats and further US national security objectives by collecting intelligence that matters[,]” it needs to get uncomfortable. Lives are at stake. Even if the CIA wanted to learn how to restructure its hiring and retention practices to foster cognitive diversity, the Trump White House has banned them from doing so. The current administration protects its own comfort to the detriment of any forward-thinking Federal government agency. Based on Syed’s argument, this comes at the cost of US lives. At the same time, local governments and the private sector grow more aware of their own blindspots. They are choosing to face their discomfort.

Local governments are turning on-the-books anti-discrimination policies into living practices. In the 2019 Beyond Compliance report, Kendra L. Smith, Ph.D., director of community engagement for the University of Houston — College of Medicine, acknowledges that “a diverse workforce rarely happens organically.” Dr. Smith highlights proactive state and local governments that are going “beyond compliance” — above the baseline set by anti-discrimintation laws. These organizations are changing the culture in their workplaces, “increasing diversity and fostering equity and inclusiveness.” Agile, thriving private sector companies are also being proactive. They know that their success is linked to their ability to cultivate diversity and inclusion. NBC news reported in 2019 that “opportunities in the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) sector are exploding.” Companies rely on expert diversity and inclusion trainers to teach people how to communicate on diverse teams. Trainers use science-based frameworks and methodologies that have proven track records of success. Smart corporations invest in trainings because it is “practical and ethical.” Practical to the tune of billions of dollars. In 2017, the tech industry alone lost $16 billion due to diversity turnover. Syed advocates for companies and governments to think about performance from a group level instead of the individual level. To focus on the entire “emergent system” of the ant colony instead of the single ant. With this perspective shift, organizations can achieve collective intelligence. (15) The kind of intelligence necessary to solve the complex problems we face today.

Thought Leaders in the field of Inclusive Diversity