The Power of Cognitive Diversity for Our Military
As the modern battlefield becomes increasingly complex, the U.S. military will require innovative and adaptive thinking to meet diverse challenges. Foreign adversaries and empowered non-state actors seek to challenge the global order and advance their own agendas. An alarming increase in cyber-attacks and malicious information operations demonstrates targeted efforts by adversaries to undermine trust and confidence in American institutions.[i] Given the backdrop of great power competition and multi-domain operations, it is imperative that military leaders produce highly trained and capable forces. The Department of Defense recently enacted wide-ranging initiatives that focus on people to increase morale, cohesion, and force readiness.[ii] However, a less-discussed aspect of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is an emphasis on cognitive diversity, which has been shown throughout history and across different sectors to generate better results for team performance. Given opportunities to closely interact with Soldiers, junior officers can make a large impact on readiness by promoting cognitive diversity within smaller formations.
What is Cognitive Diversity?
Diversity and inclusion are among the top priorities for many corporations, academic institutions, and public sector organizations to attract and leverage talent. The Department of Defense identifies two primary types of diversity: demographic and cognitive.[iii] Demographic diversity includes visible characteristics such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as differences in education, income, marital status, and sexual orientation. Cognitive diversity refers to differences in how people think through and solve problems.
Every person has inherent cognitive traits that stem from personality and thinking styles. The differences in how people think can also be a product of their upbringing, education, values, and individual experiences. The two types of diversity are generally thought to be correlated, although there are differing views on the extent to which demographic factors influence cognitive processes.[iv][SJEL1]
Cognitive Diversity Promotes Greater Organizational Performance
Despite the common saying “great minds think alike,” research shows that diverse teams tend to outperform homogenous ones.
David Rock and Heidi Grant from the NeuroLeadership Institute analyzed data from corporate studies and social psychology experiments that point to higher organization-level performance from diverse teams.[v] They conclude that diverse teams are smarter for three reasons: 1) they focus more on facts, 2) they process those facts more carefully, and 3) they are generally more innovative.[vi] Journalist and author Shane Snow draws similar conclusions in his book Dream Teams, noting that diverse teams take less time to complete challenges, are more effective at knowledge processing, and generate better perspectives overall.[vii] Bringing people together who think differently can also reduce errors that stem from individual cognitive biases or shortcuts.[viii]
Jason Lyall, author of Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance in Modern War, examines the relationship between diversity and battlefield victory across 250 different wars.[ix] His research shows that inclusive armies over the past 200 years have generally outperformed their opponents. In other words, diversity and inclusion tend to improve military effectiveness. Even when outmatched in numbers or equipment, individuals in diverse armies tend to fight harder, are less likely to desert or defect, and can better solve problems on complex battlefields.[x] These findings are extremely valuable for leaders within military organizations who are charged with planning and executing complex tasks. Though fixed structures such as rank and Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) typically dictate the composition of an organization, the ability to leverage different skillsets and ways of thinking can be a force multiplier for unit performance.
Application for Junior Officers
Junior officers have unique opportunities to engage individuals within their formations and get to know them on a personal level. Through regular touchpoints, leaders can learn how their subordinates think and process information. As the research shows, teams that leverage innovation and creativity tend to perform better than those that do not. Even so, leading diverse teams can be difficult. Encouraging different viewpoints should not be allowed to detract from group compliance once a decision has been made and it is time to execute. Junior leaders can promote cognitive diversity within their teams to maximize mission success through the following actions:
Lead with the end state in mind, without thinking about who gets the credit. As a leader, being receptive to creative ideas and letting people question assumptions can promote an inclusive environment and generate better results.
- Individuals within a team want to feel that their voices are heard and appreciated. Leading with humility by demonstrating that you do not have all the answers can allow your subordinates to feel comfortable raising issues and offering suggestions. Individuals with different roles and responsibilities will probably have unique perspectives on the same issue and can identify areas that may otherwise have been overlooked.
Establish a common purpose. Leaders are responsible for establishing and communicating clear expectations and intent to set the direction for their teams.
With a common purpose, individuals feel empowered to think about the problem at hand without getting too far out of scope. An inclusive environment should encourage subordinate leaders and teammates to ask questions and clarify any confusion so that there is shared understanding. Leaders should also seek to identify and resolve conflicts that may stem from differences in how people view a problem.
- Given a common purpose, individuals within a team can identify how they fit into the larger picture to support mission objectives.
- Practice active listening. There is a difference between listening to respond and listening to understand. As a leader, it is easy to get caught up in rapid, short-term decision-making (give me the “so what”) when handling many different tasks. Being an active listener means understanding that different people approach problems in different ways; it requires humility to recognize that we each have our own inherent “blind spots.” Taking the time to actively listen can help us become more aware of our biases and lead to better decisions.
Reward innovative and creative thinking. To create an inclusive culture, it is important to give credit where credit is due.
Leaders should demonstrate appreciation for individuals who offer new ways of thinking about a problem, regardless of rank or position. This positive feedback can encourage similar behavior in the future and show the team that innovative thinking is productive and valued. There are a variety of ways that junior leaders can provide appropriate feedback to help develop their subordinates and recognize accomplishments.
- Formal counseling procedures, unit mentorship groups, and leader university initiatives are different ways to encourage two-way communication. Awards, coins, and other incentives can also be used to recognize outstanding achievements and highlight impacts on the larger formation.
- Encourage self-development and intellectual curiosity. Leaders who value cognitive diversity should lead by example in trying new things and encouraging others to do so as well. Reading fiction and non-fiction books, taking classes, and trying new hobbies are all ways to expand your knowledge. Creating a work environment where people feel that they can share their interests and passions will not only make them feel more comfortable but can also help identify individual strengths outside of assigned duties. These bonds can further strengthen the team and build mutual trust.
Prioritizing cognitive diversity throughout the ranks is a step in the right direction to build smarter, more effective teams. As the U.S. military trains for and executes diverse mission requirements, it is more important than ever to leverage talent and continue to attract highly qualified men and women for service. Junior leaders should promote inclusive environments within their teams to encourage critical thinking and innovative ideas in support of common objectives. The strength of our military comes from its people and the various experiences that they bring to the fight. Every Soldier who chooses to serve has a unique story; perhaps the best thing we can do as leaders is to give each a voice.
Amy Saxton is an active-duty Army Captain currently serving as the Commander for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Army Geospatial-Intelligence Battalion. She is a 2021 Leadership Fellow at the Army’s Center for Junior Officers. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, United States Army, or the United States Military Academy.
[i] Maggie Smith, “More Than a Buzzword: Diversity Can Help Defeat Disinformation,” War On the Rocks, last modified May 25, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/05/more-than-a-buzzword-diversity-can-help-defeat-disinformation/.
[ii] Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion Report: Recommendations to Improve Racial and Ethnic Diversity and Inclusion in the U.S. Military,” last modified December 18, 2020, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Dec/18/2002554852/-1/-1/0/ DOD-DIVERSITY-AND-INCLUSION-FINAL-BOARD-REPORT.PDF.
[iii] Consortium for Health and Military Performance, “Team diversity: How differences improve performance,” last modified September 9, 2019, https://www.hprc-online.org/social-fitness/teams-leadership/team-diversity-how-differences-improve-performance.
[iv] Den Howlett, “Cognitive Diversity As a Driver for Workplace and Economic Betterment,” last modified May 28, 2019, https://diginomica.com/cognitive-diversity-driving-workplace-betterment.
[v] David Rock and Heidi Grant, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter,” Harvard Business Review, last modified November 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter.
[vii] Shane Snow, “Cognitive Diversity: The Building Block of Innovation,” https://www.shanesnow.com/teamwork/cognitive-diversity.
[viii] Joyce Ehrlinger, W.O. Readinger, and Bora Kim, “Decision-Making and Cognitive Biases,” Encyclopedia of Mental Health, doi 10.1016/B978-0-12-397045-9.00206-8.
[ix] Jason Lyall, “The Military is Making Changes in Response to Black Lives Matter Protests. That’s Good for Fighting Wars,” last modified July 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/07/28/military-is-making-changes-response-black-lives-matter-protests-thats-good-fighting-wars/.