Over the past few years, more and more corporate leaders and consultants have been talking about a “new” kind of workplace diversity: diversity of thought.
All the attention it’s getting is something of a double-edged sword, though. On the one hand, it’s great that so many people are beginning to see that diversity of thought plays an important role in a business’s success. But on the other, the term itself is getting thrown around so much—often in very general or superficial ways—that it risks becoming just another piece of meaningless jargon.
Diversity of thought isn’t just new packaging on an old idea about the dangers of surrounding yourself with “yes men.” It’s also not just another way of saying that if you let conflicting ideas and perspectives rub up against each other for a long enough time, eventually something positive will come from it.
Too often, these discussions skim the surface, suggesting that you just need to bring together differences of opinion and you can expect great things to happen. In fact, diversity of thought is more tangible than that; it’s something that can be measured. And just as crucial, the business benefits only come through intention. You have to get crystal clear about what it is, and then you need the processes, frameworks and leadership to take advantage of it.
So, first things first: What is it exactly?
As the name implies, different people think in different ways. This isn’t just about background, experiences and opinions, although all of those factors tend to play a part. Fundamentally, it’s about the differences people have in how they prefer to think. An easy way to understand this is through the Herrmann Whole Brain ® Model, a four-quadrant metaphorical model of the brain, based on research originally conducted at GE’s world-class corporate university, Crotonville. The model shows how thinking falls into four preference clusters that we each have access to. It’s like your thinking system, comprised of four different thinking “selves.”
You have a team of these four thinking selves available to you, but it you’re like most of us, you probably prefer some of them over others. Like a sports team, you have your go-to players that you send out the majority of the time, while others sit on the bench.
When we talk about diversity of thought, we’re talking about this diversity of preferences. Each of the four preferences—analytical, organized, interpersonal and strategic—contribute value to the business. You can’t run an organization and remain successful over the long term without all of this thinking in play and, often, in very specific ways. From our database of more than two million thinkers, we can even identify patterns of thinking that are common in particular occupations.
And that brings us to the next essential point: With a validated assessment, thinking preferences can be measured, and those results can then easily be interpreted and translated into predictable behaviors and outcomes in the workplace.
So now you have a tangible way to start looking at things like how diverse thinkers will work together, what challenges they’re going to face when they come at a problem from entirely different thinking angles, what processes and tools they’ll need, and what specific combination of thinking strengths will be best suited to a particular problem or task. That’s how you start to get intentional about diversity of thought.
Leading Diversity of Thought
Just like any other form of diversity, diversity of thought is something you have; that doesn’t mean it’s being applied. Without inclusive leaders who understand the value different thinkers bring to the table and are skilled at encouraging people to both contribute their thinking and be open to the perspectives and ideas of others, many well-intended initiatives never get anywhere. Worse, they can devolve into unproductive conflict and chaos, sabotaging any future efforts to focus on diversity of thought.
The more diverse the team is, the more important it is to have a leader who can manage and facilitate the process to make sure everyone is heard and that there’s a clear game plan to keep the goal in sight.
4 Steps to Getting Started with Diversity of Thought
Don’t expect that bringing together a bunch of people with widely different backgrounds and experiences will be the miracle cure for all your business problems. Go beyond the surface to get the benefits of diversity of thought:
- Define it and measure it
- Provide the tools to make it practical and tangible
- Develop leaders who encourage, facilitate and manage it
- Apply it to think differently about stubborn challenges and tough problems
With some clarity and intention, you can turn the promise of diversity of thought into a genuine business driver.