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Strive For Cognitive Board Diversity

governance transition Apr 02, 2024

- By Sophie Pinkoski

Board diversity has been championed for many years now as a cornerstone of effective governance. Yet recruiting people from diverse backgrounds is only the first step in creating a high-functioning board. Identity diversity (gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, for instance) on its own does not automatically translate to quality decision-making in the boardroom. In fact, it's becoming increasingly clear that the missing key to effective governance is diversity of thought. Despite this insight, few boards are actively pursuing cognitive diversity.

Everyone’s perspective is informed by their experiences, knowledge, skills, and expertise. These speak to their core values and beliefs. The cognitive diversity an individual brings to any situation depends on the context of the group itself. It’s possible for someone to lend diversity to one group with differing perspectives from their own, yet not add additional perspective to another similarly minded group.

Without thoughtfully introducing cognitive diversity, boards risk falling into group think.

When addressing board diversity, it’s crucial, therefore to carefully consider what kind of knowledge, expertise, and thought processes would best suit the organization’s needs. After all, diverse recruitment is more than just a box ticking exercise. It’s about bringing in an array of voices to contribute their unique perspectives to the conversation.

A cognitively diverse board is best equipped to manage the complexities that come with modern organizational governance challenges we face today.

It utilizes the minds of a wide range of individuals who can step back and see the big picture by viewing problems and opportunities from multiple angles before making informed decisions.

Here are things to keep in mind when building a cognitively diverse board:

Mitigate group think–– When the majority of your board shares the same perspectives, this can often lead to group think, and a subsequent toxic environment that hinders the group from making quality decisions. Swift board unanimity often fails to consider the potential risks and opportunities of each decision, thus significantly diminishing the board’s capacities. This also creates a precedent of self-censoring to avoid rocking the boat by going against the majority’s opinion. Group think can pressure some individuals into agreement, meaning their silence does not, in fact, indicate a unanimous consensus. For this reason, it’s key for the chair to foster a culture that puts each member at ease to speak their minds without being dismissed or facing other negative consequences.

A cognitively balanced board allows for a much more vibrant conversation, where difference in opinion is not only accepted, but encouraged.

Foster a culture of psychological safety–– It’s the chair’s responsibility to bring psychological safety into the boardroom. When everyone feels psychologically safe, they are given the freedom to be themselves, and in extension, share their honest opinions unfiltered. The free flow of thought stimulates the board’s collective creativity, building on one another’s ideas for innovative solutions. The chair has the power to amplify their directors’ voices to ensure everyone’s ideas are heard.

Empower board members to speak up and ensure no one person is dominating the conversation.

Harness collective knowledge for well-informed decisions–– Social scientist, Scott E. Page conducted an experiment in which he found that contrary to popular belief, a group of experts were less efficient problem solvers than a cognitively diverse group of thinkers. He found that the experts came together to make quick consensus without critically analyzing the task at hand, whereas the more diverse groups were able to assess the problem from various angles, which gave them more options, and led to make an educated, well-informed decision. Such cognitive diversity creates more flexibility for boards to adapt to complex situations.

When boards don’t fall back on familiar decision-making processes, it opens the group to constructive disagreement.

This kind of lively debate doesn’t have to be construed as oppositional at all, but is in fact, an opportunity to collectively brainstorm fresh approaches to the problem at hand. They can then assess the risks and implications of each option to make a final decision.

Onboard new board members with a clear sense of purpose–– Cognitive diversity is not as straightforward as identity diversity. Thought processes are internal and far less tangible than someone’s gender or ethnicity. It’s therefore important to find ways to encourage potential new directors to reveal their mode of thinking. Ask probing questions while interviewing to get a sense of their thought processes. This hinges on creating a welcoming environment that supports individuality and independent thought, as well as promoting board position openings outside usual networks. Identify the skill and knowledge gaps in the board to pinpoint the type of cognitive talent needed to fill specific roles. Once those are identified, find a recruit who can articulate their diverse thoughts, it’s important to clarify expectations from the offset. During their onboarding, let them know how the board operates and how decisions are made. Be clear about the board’s purpose so they understand how their unique perspective adds value to the organization as a whole.

We are in an era where cognitive diversity is no longer just a nice-to-have.

By looking beyond identity diversity toward cognitive diversity, a whole new level of efficient governance can be unlocked.

Fostering a culture of inclusion to empower every director to share their unique perspectives will bring a new breadth of informed decision making and thoughtful problem solving. After all, it’s not about filling a quota, but harnessing the board’s potential to drive the organization’s long-term success.


Further Reading

Realising Your Board’s Diversity of Thought - Psychological Safety, Institute of Directors New Zealand

Realising Your Board’s Diversity of Thought – Independence, Institute of Directors New Zealand

Realising Your Board’s Diversity of Thought – Recruitment, Institute of Directors New Zealand

Leveraging Diversity of Thought for Better Board Decision-making, Board Pro

What It Means to Have Diversity of Thought on Boards, Aspen

Diversity of Thought in the Boardroom: An Antidote to Group Think?, Airmic

Diversity's New Frontier: Diversity of Thought and the Future of the Workforce, Deloitte

Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse, Harvard Business Review

Why Cognitive Diversity Is Set to Be a Major Driver of Boardroom Capability and Business Performance, The Chartered Governance Institute

Boards Need To Up Their Game In Terms Of Cognitive Diversity, Forbes

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