Let’s consider, for a moment, a firm with 30 team members. The team includes equal numbers of men and women. Their ages range from a 21-year-old administrative assistant to the president, who is 62 years old. The team also includes members from different races and ethnic groups. Is it a slam-dunk to describe this workplace as being diverse? Not necessarily.

When diversity in the workplace is the subject, we typically consider the obvious signposts. While race, gender, ethnicity and age are important considerations when building a diverse workplace, cognitive diversity can be equally important.

Cognitive diversity describes a different way of looking at things, a different style of problem solving. It may also be the last mountain to climb when building a diverse workplace. Here’s why.

When assembling a team, the ability to get along with each other is a key goal. Who doesn’t want a friction-free workplace, in which all team members can practically finish each other’s sentences? Who wants a workplace in which management and human resources personnel need to spend an inordinate amount of time managing fractious relationships?

As a result, firms often hire according to a particular type. For example, the now-defunct long distance carrier MCI was known to be a high-stress, combative environment. This was no place for weaklings. There was an MCI type.

When screening recruits, human resources at companies like MCI will characteristically look for “people like us.” It is as if an organization is a living body that rejects foreign organisms.

The problem with this mindset is there can be many roads toward solving a particular problem. While multiple roads may eventually end at a solution, some may get you there sooner. What’s more, some roads will never get you there. Instead, you can become lost in the woods.

When all team members travel along the same road, based upon the same assumptions, according to the same critical decision-making path, the best road may go untraveled.

Historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin famously described Abraham Lincoln’s presidential cabinet as a “Team of Rivals.” Lincoln, for whom the War Between the States presented a particularly difficult challenge, had the courage and self-confidence to select a team of advisers prone to fractious debate. While meetings would have been quieter and shorter had his cabinet members spent their time nodding in agreement, creative decision-making would have been sacrificed.

I recall, earlier in my career, calling on Time Inc. in the Time-Life building on 6th Avenue in New York City. As I walked past offices and cubicles, I would be struck by the sameness of the individuals occupying the offices. When Time hired an account executive from the advertising agency in which I worked, I thought how he could have been raised in the same house as those men and women already working at the company.

Many reasons contributed to the eventual demise of what The New York Times described as “the pre-eminent media organization of the 20th century,” including the ferocious interloper knows as the Internet. I feel certain the company would have been better positioned to meet these challenges, though, had there been greater cognitive diversity in the workplace.

Legacy carriers today face their own disruptive force in upstart InsurTech companies. Even without this disruption, climate change, strained supply chains, political upheaval and financial uncertainty cause this to be a particularly challenging time. Those carriers scoring high on the cognitive diversity scale are more likely to meet these challenges head on.

“The Umbrella Academy” is a comic book series and web television series featured on Netflix. While I have watched only a few episodes, I can report it is about a family of adopted sibling superheroes who approach problem solving in widely divergent ways. To say they don’t always play nicely with each other is an understatement. However, you would want them on your team when times get tough.

It would be interesting for carriers to form their own in-house umbrella academies. These teams could travel from business to business, tearing apart familiar thought processes and patterns.

It takes courage to invite new employees who think differently into the workplace. I am reminded of Apple’s wildly successful “Think Different” advertising campaign. “What if” can be painful and time-consuming; “I agree” is pleasant and easy.

There is nothing pleasant or easy, though, about missed revenue targets and declining market share. When that happens, all team members suffer—no matter how well they get along with each other.

Topics Talent