Employers Have a New Idea for Inclusive Recruitment: Hiring for Diversity of Thought

November 27, 2019, 3:00 PM UTC

Intent on creating a cohesive culture, companies have focused for the past few years on recruiting candidates based less on specific job skills (those can be taught) than on traits like shared values, similar backgrounds, and even personal chemistry with the hiring manager. An unintended consequence: Too much emphasis on cultural fit can lead to a workforce made up of people who all think more or less alike. Over time, that can smother innovation and stymie growth.

But wait, businesses have also been making enormous strides in hiring for diversity and inclusion (D&I). That should have led to diversity of thought, (aka cognitive diversity), right? After all, hiring for D&I brings in people of varying sexes, races, and ethnicities and, along with them, fresh perspectives, new ideas, and different approaches to solving problems. Or does it?

The short answer: Don’t count on it. “Demographic diversity is necessary but not sufficient for diversity of thought,” says Tom Schoenfelder, Ph.D., principal scientist at employment-assessment firm Caliper. In extensive research into the link between the two, he has found that “there is some correlation, but much less than most people assume, and certainly no automatic connection.”

Employers are beginning to agree, which is why a pioneering few have adopted a much more expansive definition of D&I. “We call our approach ‘full-spectrum’ diversity,” says Andy Noronha, who is director of strategy and business transformation at Cisco Systems in San Jose. The company has been a D&I leader in its industry. (For instance, 58% of its executive leadership team is female, ethnically diverse, or both.) Along with inclusion based on demographics, Cisco looks for a wide range of “backgrounds, experiences, strengths, and perspectives,” Noronha says. “That’s where cognitive diversity comes in.”

So how can you find the job candidates (of whatever sex, race, ethnicity, or age) who are most likely to bring innovative thinking to your knottiest challenges, and anticipate future issues before they pop up?

Technology can help. One example: Caliper’s data-driven assessment quiz, the Caliper Profile, starts with an algorithm that evaluates people based on current top-performing employees’ strengths in 22 areas, including abstract thought, open-mindedness, and flexibility. Its 113 questions also gauge whether someone is a convergent or a divergent thinker, meaning whether he or she tends to zero in on one solution to a given dilemma or would rather consider many possible ones.

“As work changes and evolves, divergent thinkers can look ahead and think creatively about the future, and they like to brainstorm,” says Schoenfelder. “But on any team, to get true cognitive diversity, you really need some of each type.”

Over almost six decades, Caliper has evaluated about 4.5 million employees and prospective hires at over 65,000 companies (including its own), but Schoenfelder emphasizes that the results “are just one data point in the hiring process. We don’t recommend making hiring decisions based solely on the profile.”

That’s because humans are still better than machines at recognizing cognitive diversity. When Caliper marketing communications manager Aggie Alvarez took the assessment quiz upon joining the company 14 years ago, she recalls, its description of her was “so dead-on accurate, it was borderline creepy.” When she hires people now, Alvarez uses their profiles mainly as a starting point for crafting behavioral interview questions. “The algorithms can only tell you what someone would prefer to do in a given situation,” she says, adding that it takes human interviewers to come up with “questions that tell you how the person thought about what they actually did.”

In the new book, Driving Innovation from Within: A Guide for Internal Entrepreneurs, Kaihan Krippendorff, Ph.D., describes four distinct styles of thinking that contribute to cognitive diversity. A former McKinsey consultant, Krippendorff is now head of growth strategy firm Outthinker, whose clients include Pfizer, CVS Health, and Viacom. His acronym for the four basic styles of thought is IDEA, which stands for imagine, dissect, expand, and analyze.

Krippendorff suggests devising interview questions that will give you insights into “how someone approaches problem-solving,” he says. “Provide scenarios, real or hypothetical, and ask how they think about them.” The goal is to identify which of the four main cognitive styles comes most naturally:

  1. Is the person most comfortable thinking long-term about the big picture?
  2. Inclined to break down problems into smaller ones, and tackle those one by one?
  3. Talented at brainstorming creative solutions?
  4. Or best at choosing among existing alternatives, with a willingness to explain precisely why?

None of these four kinds of thought is inherently better than the others, and each of us has a little bit of each, depending on the situation. But a clear sense of how someone approaches a task can help you pinpoint whether a candidate—or an employee—is a cognitive fit for a particular job, or would do better in some other role. A team that’s already stacked with creative thinkers probably needs to bring in someone who’s more analytical, for instance, or vice versa.

One thing is for sure: A focus on cognitive diversity puts complex demands on managers. Welcoming a wide range of views takes genuine curiosity about unfamiliar ideas, a tolerance for dissent, and skill at mediating the inevitable conflicts—all while keeping everyone moving forward toward specific business goals. “Selecting and managing for cultural fit is actually much easier,” says Tom Schoenfelder.

The payoff for all that extra effort, though, is potentially tremendous. “Everyone brings their own mental toolbox for making decisions and solving problems,” says Noronha at Cisco. “Being truly inclusive, and creating a culture where people are encouraged to speak up and talk about their ideas without fear of ‘not fitting in’, is invaluable. It’s essential to innovation.” And who doesn’t want that?

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