Cognitive Diversity – a way to overcome “Diversity Fatigue”?

Is diversity fatigue really a thing? Apparently so.

You may have seen the article in The Australian recently, highlighting ‘diversity fatigue’, that trended on LinkedIn? Following closely, was another article on ‘diversity and inclusion fatigue’ in response to the release of the WGEA scorecard.

As proponents of the value a diverse mix of leaders bring to society, organisations and teams, we need to combat the fatigue driven by little movement on gender and other key metrics across the board.

 Lauren Lee, an editorial fellow at LinkedIn puts it “Let’s flex our creative muscles here: what are ways we can concretely combat diversity fatigue? How can we revitalize excitement in companies that are feeling hopeless about inclusion initiatives?”

The team here at Fisher Leadership hosted a hearty round table discussion on this topic.  Participants reflected that such fatigue is felt not only by those whose power paradigms are shifting beneath their feet, but also by well intending leaders who have willingly put resources into gender equality programs and feeling overwhelmed by the complexity and lack of impact. These original advocates are now needing to turn their attention to other challenges.

How will we address the dire lack of diversity we see on executive, board and leadership teams in Australia, if, despite the many committed Diversity and Inclusion initiatives in place, we succumb to ‘diversity fatigue’? While this backlash may be voiced only by a few, it becomes amplified and gains momentum with such press coverage and warrants a reply.

At our Cognitive Diversity Roundtable in September, we agreed that cognitive diversity represented a way to link the value of diversity generally to value-creation in the business setting specifically. We defined cognitive diversity as ‘the different ways people think and engage with new, uncertain and complex situations.’

Diversity as a Socially Conscious Imperative

To understand the disconnect people must feel when claiming ‘diversity fatigue’, it is helpful for us to consider the origins of the way we use the word diversity:

The term as we use it today first emerged in 1978, as part of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in University of California v. Bakke. The court struck down quotas but upheld affirmative action, allowing an applicant’s race to factor into college-admissions policies. It was a divisive case, which resulted in a total of six opinions. The judgment of the Court was written by Justice Lewis Powell, who argued that the state had an interest in maintaining a “diverse student body.” Powell’s rationale differed slightly from the rest of the majority, who predicated their support for affirmative action on an acknowledgment of America’s legacies of discrimination and inequality. From the very beginning, then, there was something vague and ahistorical about diversity, particularly in the context of higher education. Rather than a means of historical redress, it was meant to be useful. [emphasis added]

(Hsu, 2017)

Evident in the concept of ‘diversity’ is the socially conscious or moral imperative of inclusion. Diversity means different things to different people and the social and economic impact of inclusive workplaces is well documented and largely accepted. While this social argument for diversity is a critical component, it has created a lens through which the concept of diversity now revolves around visible markers such as gender and skin colour. This narrow definition reinforces the idea that people who look different are different.

The assumption that diversity ‘looks different’ and is based on the representation of underprivileged or minority groups can undermine the inherent value diversity brings to decision-making in the knowledge economy.

It also leaves little room for the possibility that in an integrated multicultural society, people who look different may actually have experienced a similar upbringing – going to the same schools, living in the same neighbourhoods, solving problems from a similar knowledge base. This ‘diversity assumption’ may in fact bring like-mindedness to the table, rather than the diversity of thought that would actualise the innovation and new ideas diversity initiatives promise.

Dnika Travis, VP of Research at Catalyst, has studied diversity fatigue and provides insight into leaders feeling “disheartened by their inability to get fresh ideas on the table from their diverse team” and suggests that “a person of color may be exhausted by the constant need to be on guard to ward off bias and microaggressions (Catalyst, 2019). When diversity is linked to real business value, difference becomes a competitive advantage that each and every employee needs to bring to the table. Essentially, if we want equality, our concept of diversity needs to be reframed.

By virtue of difference

When Justice Lewis Powell argued that it would benefit the state to maintain a “diverse” student body, he was likely referring to the benefits of cognitive diversity. As business leaders seek to attain value from their Diversity & Inclusion initiatives, we must link the need for diversity directly and strategically to the business imperative to solve increasingly more complex problems. In his recent book, ‘Rebel Ideas’, Matthew Syed depicts the curation of cognitively diverse thinking in decision-making teams as below:

The rectangles symbolise the problem space, or the challenge the group is trying to solve. The circles represent the cognitive diversity of the group members. The first diagram depicts what we know to be true of many decision-making groups; cognitively clone-like, they have coverage of only one small area of the problem space. This means the assumptions they make in trying to solution-build are inherently biased. This group will likely solve a problem in shorter time frame, and feel more confident in their solution, when compared to a cognitively diverse group.

The second diagram represents what can happen when a decision-making team is assumed to be diverse by measure of visual markers rather than assessing the diversity of thought. These members are more likely to have differing viewpoints and cover broader areas of the problem space, however may not necessarily provide a better decision-making outcome, and may find it difficult to build the knowledge bridges required. Therefore, decision-making may take longer.

In the third rectangle, we see the coverage of a curated cognitively diverse team increase across the problem space. When diversity takes into account an individual’s life experience, technical knowledge and thinking style, the advantages are clear. The decision-making process is begins with more questions, cancelling out individual biases and assumptions. Syed sums up the relationship between cognitive diversity and collective intelligence well: ‘successful teams are diverse, but not arbitrarily diverse… Diversity contributes to collective intelligence, then, but only when it is relevant’ (Syed, 2019)

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Diversity fatigue? It could be a cognitive issue.

At Fisher Leadership we have spent the better part of two decades advocating for greater diversity around decision-making tables. We are proud that of all our appointments, 50% have been placing highly qualified women into high profile roles. We are also very proud to have placed 25 Indigenous executives into roles (representing 2% of all appointments). However, we acknowledge the dismal statistics in Australian executive teams more broadly. The Australian Human Rights Commission figures show only 5.1% representation of non-Celtic, non-European leaders in ASX 200 C-Suite teams. And this week’s WGEA scorecard shows that the number of women in CEO roles has remained static at 17.1%, while representation on boards grow by a minimal 1.0% to 26.8%.

We firmly believe that in order to bring diversity to the table in the board room and on executive teams, we need to get clearer about how we define, source and enable diversity at decision-making tables. Only then will be actualise the value of diversity in a way that leaves no room for ‘fatigue’. As one of our Fisher Leadership team-members commented in our meeting, ‘Can you imagine executives getting ‘revenue fatigue’?

Fisher Leadership exists to ‘create a world of difference’. Cognitive diversity raises up all forms of difference, and makes each of us accountable to bring the value of our own diversity to the table.