Lightbulb - Thinking Final

Nov 11, 2020

Is diversity of thought the new leadership differentiator?

The pandemic has accelerated the need for different thinking, new approaches to big problems and diverse intelligence. Difference is good.

Whether it’s business gurus, enlightened authors, fellow leaders or just giving yourself time to think, access to different thinking and building a rich and diverse network of unlike-minded people will ensure leaders do their very best thinking and make sound business decisions.

We often talk about encouraging other people’s opinions, but then the way we interact with others encourages people to follow the same train of thought. Let’s start with meetings. Extraverts dominate, introverts detach, we don't get the best thinking possible. So the way in which we lead and facilitate meetings may mean we aren’t getting the best thinking, ideation and contribution from everyone around the table. To be clear, extroverts are verbal processors, while introverted people prefer to process the information in their own heads before drawing conclusions.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain says, “There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” So how can we enable people to think differently and creatively? Are we creating the conditions for people to do their best thinking?
Beware the dominant leader
In his latest book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking, Matthew Syed quotes the tech entrepreneur Avinash Kaushik who identifies a key problem in formal business structures that he refers to as the HiPPO problem; the ‘highest paid person’s opinion’, meaning everyone relies on and defers to the opinions of the dominant leader – or leaders – in the room. HiPPOs rule the world, they overrule your data, opinions and your customers. Their attendance at a meetings impacts the quality of thinking and results in ‘group think’, where the agenda is driven by the dominant leader and people revert to the way things have always been done. The result is a leadership group of parrots and clones.

Avoiding the impact of the HiPPO in the room means ensuring everyone in the meeting has a voice, to encourage every individual in the room to share their different ideas, opinions and creativity.

Importance of diverse teams
Matthew Syed talks about rebels versus clones and the value of creating “an intelligent group of rebels.” He says, “Wise groups express different dynamics. They bring insights from different regions of the problem space. They have perspectives that challenge, augment, diverge and cross pollinate. They have vastly higher levels of collective intelligence and they have coverage”. The pandemic has accelerated the need for business leaders to access diverse intelligence and thinking, to develop new solutions to urgent and complex problems.
McKinsey’s report 'Diversity Wins: How inclusion matters 2020' found that those companies in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 36% more likely to have financial returns above their industry standard, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25% more likely to have returns above the industry average. But workplace diversity extends much further than ethnicity or gender. Recent research indicates that diverse teams perform more effectively and make smarter decisions. Different opinions and experiences lead to different thinking, and difference is good. Diversity of thought leads to people focusing more on fact or data than personal opinion and more careful consideration of the facts and possible outcomes, more creativity in how problems may be overcome and new innovations to enhance performance.
Enriching the leadership pool with people from different cultures, backgrounds, experiences, nationalities and with different skills and capabilities is key for boosting leadership capability, intellectual potential and unequivocally business performance.

Access to different thought leaders
In my recent article, Six years, six leadership trends: Connection, disruption and accelerated change,  I talk about having access to different thinking in the form of role models, coaches, mentors and thought leaders.
Choosing the right role models, coaches and mentors is vital for leaders to develop their thinking.  When I’m supporting leaders, I encourage them to access enlightened thinkers and to share their own point of view. It’s about leaders developing their own ideas, diversity of thought and fresh thinking, and helping them to be authentic, liberated and enlightened rather than a mere echo chamber for other people’s thinking. Senior leaders tend to find themselves removed from ‘real’ feedback, therefore I advise people to seek out thought leaders and find the time to think things through independently.
Technical skills and expertise may have got you there, but as Matt Monge, future of work expert points out:  “Having a title doesn’t make you a leader any more than having a bedazzled jumpsuit makes you Elvis.” And no leader knows it all; there is always something to learn and an alternative viewpoint to consider. Especially when we are dealing with a global pandemic.
Junior doctors have reported enjoying the medical and intellectual challenge of working in a pandemic. During recent months they have discovered what they may have suspected all along, hierarchy doesn’t mean you’re the best and most knowledgeable doctor. Medical breakthroughs have also come from top consultants, frontline workers and in collaboration with business to share the very best thinking. It was a research nurse who helped raised funds to buy ipads so that dying coronavirus patients were able to speak with their families for the last time
When working with leaders, I recommend extending their points of reference from well-known business leaders such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Martha Lane Fox to other thought leaders such as Sydney Finkelstein who writes about the differentiating qualities that characterise ‘superbosses’, Francesca Gino’s thoughts on what truly defines ‘rebel talent’ and Bob Sutton’s ‘no assholes work here’ rule. Also, Nancy Kline’s work on Time To Think, Brene Brown on courage and vulnerability, Jacob Morgan on the future of work and Matthew Syed’s thinking on cognitive diversity. These are all thought leaders from diverse backgrounds who offer a different perspective on current challenges.
We need human interaction now more than ever
The pandemic has been a watershed moment for digital transformation and has changed the way we interact, most likely forever. And people have been turning to Zoom and Microsoft Teams in the drive for human interaction.

During the pandemic, Microsoft reported that users of Microsoft Teams generated more than five billion meeting minutes in a single day and people have been turning on video in Teams meetings two times more than before the pandemic, as employees working from home looked for new ways to drive human connection.

However, dig a little deeper and many organisations are simply looking to replicate what was previously done in the office in a virtual environment. And with Microsoft also reporting that 62% of the UK managers surveyed feel less connected to their team working from home, there is still a clear need for human interaction. Not everything can be done virtually and not everyone can work remotely. As we respond, recover and reimagine the future of work, it’s not about simply replicating the old way in a digital form. Organisations need to embrace a hybrid work strategy – reinventing the way work is done digitally, while respecting and leveraging the great things about the way we used to work. Human interaction and diversity of thought will ultimately lead to better business performance and competitive advantage.
Hubs of creativity
In recent years we’ve seen brilliant examples of the way organisations have designed their offices to stimulate social interaction and creative thinking, with creative spaces, couches and hubs for individuals or small groups to brainstorm, question storm and share thinking on ideation, creation and innovation. But how does this now translate with virtual working?

In the recent Bank of England ‘Engaging Business Summit and Autumn Lecture’, Andy Haldane, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England looks at the impact Covid-19 has had on the way people work in the UK and what that might mean for people’s happiness, wellbeing and the health of the economy. The pandemic has caused the largest shift in working practices in modern times with home-working increasing from 10% to 50% during the pandemic. Research indicates that, for many, home-working increases productivity, workplace happiness and a sense of empowerment. Yet for those where home-working isn’t possible, such as frontline and key workers, jobs have become harder, more stressful and more hazardous.

Although the pandemic has forced through improvements in technology and digital skills, and working practices have changed for the better for many individuals, the longer term impact on collaboration, creativity and innovation remains to be seen. Some of the potential costs of home-working, including loss of social engagement, are only now being felt and may grow with time, in ways that affect both our well-being and productivity at work.
Intellectual versus social capital
Not only do we need to create the conditions for people to exercise their intellectual capital when working from home, the ability to use and expand on ‘social capital’ is much more challenging. Loss of opportunities for human interaction depletes social capital and can cause loss of relationships, external stimuli, access to different people and different thinking. How can we access and enhance intellectual, creative and social capital in the current climate? How can we ensure that we and others do our very best thinking when working in relative isolation? For me, leadership is all about relationships; therefore effective leadership requires social capital.

So in the current climate how can we create the conditions to stimulate different thinking?

Here are my tips for leaders to both encourage and access diverse thinking.

1.     Create effective meetings, in person and online

Transform your meetings to enable diverse thinking by creating meetings that are inclusive, energising and achieve their purpose and defined outcomes.

Create the conditions for a virtual table, with everyone present and having a voice, making a contribution. Simple techniques like asking everyone to change their screen labels to first names only.  Whoever calls someone by their full name when meeting face to face, so why does this change just because we’re meeting online? Asking everyone to use their videos adds presence (wifi issues aside).  It’s about creating a sense of ease and informality. Open the meeting with a positive as a thinking enhancer. What’s gone well? People think better when they feel valued, when they have made a contribution, their voice is heard, they have been listened to and they know they don’t have to fight for their place at the table.

To give everyone a chance to share their views, I ensure that I ask questions of everyone, whether meeting in person or virtually. It’s about taking time to listen to their answers, listening with palpable interest.  You may think that’s a routine occurrence yet in her new book, Nancy Kline quotes the Gottman Institute in Seattle and their findings that the average listening time three years ago was 20 seconds.  Now it’s eleven.  Eleven seconds.

Online meetings encounter the same problems as meeting in person; those extreme extraverts will still dominate the conversation, drown out introverts and suppress different thinking and creativity. But with virtual meetings, given we miss so much of subtle body language, eye contact, all of those unspoken thoughts and different thinking, the art of listening gains even greater significance.
2.     Walk and talk
Even during a pandemic with social restrictions, ‘walk and talk’ sessions are still possible and effective, whether a socially distanced walk or using headphones. 

As social restrictions eased over the summer I held leadership walk and talk sessions with two MD’s of a UK Property Development company, one in London taking in the vibrancy of SE1 and the South Bank and one in Liverpool, at the Liverpool waterfront from the ‘Three Graces’ – the iconic Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building and Port of Liverpool Building – to the stark newness of the Museum of Liverpool and Mann Island development. A vastly different perspective.  The iconic Liverpool skyline demonstrates the shift from industrial age to urban regeneration; while taking in the centuries of building and development, little did we know of the rapid pace of societal, economic and technological change on the horizon.

3.     Harness the collective intellectual, creative and social capital
In one of my recent leadership development sessions, a senior leader talked about his lightbulb moment when he realised his colleagues considered it was his responsibility and his alone to come up with the strategies for his specific area of the business. Yet in spending time in a problem solving and knowledge transfer session, he realised it was the collective intelligence of his colleagues around the table that shaped, supported and guided his own sometimes siloed individual thinking.

Leaders need to access the collective intellectual, creative and experiential capabilities of those around them. Tap into the everyday genius of the people in your organisation. By creating the conditions for harnessing diverse thinking and networks, leaders will more effectively be able to do their best thinking, best listening, assess complex problems and make sound business decisions.

4.     Access different thinking
The ability to access thought leaders, commentators, online learning, online events, forums and podcasts has never been easier. Now, political parties hold their annual conferences online, graduates attend online graduation ceremonies and we all have far wider access to professional events and forums.

This week alone I have accessed online events hosted by Harvard Business Review, MiT, McKinsey, the International Coaching Federation, Time to Think and the week is not yet over!  Just to disclose, that’s not a typical week.  Take into account Linked In groups, professional communities and other external and social networks, that’s just the immediate ones that come to mind.  Seize opportunities to access different thinking. In turn, ensure your own meetings and events have a clear purpose – to encourage and inspire, to appeal to the heads, hearts and minds of your audience and inspire creativity and diversity of thinking.

5.     Make time to think for ourselves
McKinsey talk about the ‘thirty second window’, where the availability and pace of information means that people are doing, thinking, listening and watching in thirty second windows – whether accessing great thinkers, webinars, podcasts, digital news and opinion or audio books. Ease of access to different perspectives enables us to consume more and more diverse thinking.

Traditional learning and development has changed. It’s now about leaders having a growth mindset and learning mindset, and using these changes in mindset to access a diverse range of thinking. Whilst I know it’s common sense and not necessarily common practice,  I always ask my clients if they are dedicating time in their day for learning and thinking – even the most time-scarce leaders can build time into their schedule to be curious and do their best independent thinking. I will talk about growth and learning mindsets in my next article.

The daily commute previously offered people the time to read, listen and think. For those now working from home, this time has been absorbed by earlier meetings, phone calls and that thinking time has evaporated. Just taking a 30 minute window for you, whether for a walk, undisturbed coffee break or to plan ahead, helps you to take back control and have time to think. Even if it’s not every day, carving out restorative time is important for achieving a balance in your day between stressors and restorers – diarise the restorative activities that work for you.

6.     You as leader – are you thinking differently?
Be honest, are you being a dominant leader, are you the HiPPO in the room? If you are, you’re inhibiting people’s thinking and creativity. Ask yourself, am I inhibiting or enhancing thinking in my team? Am I thinking independently or is it just programmed thinking that doesn’t take in the diverse perspectives of the team around me? Am I really gaining the benefit of cognitive diversity and did I really hire all these great people just to do things my way?

And then ask yourself, what am I doing to increase diverse thinking? How can I access other people’s thinking on complex problems? This take us back to Susan Cain’s point; “There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” For me, being a good leader is about inclusivity.

Research has suggested that women sometimes find it more difficult to self-promote, and self-promotion or more stereotypically ‘extroverted’ qualities are not rewarded in every culture, so minority groups may be at a disadvantage. This certainly plays out in equality reporting in FTSE 250 organisations.  Quieter people can often change the world because they listen more and hear things that others don’t. To become a more inclusive leader, notice who’s listening and processing. Groups tend to gravitate towards the most charismatic or dominant leader in the room, which so often means missing out on the collective intelligence of the everyone in the group.

In summary
Accessing and encouraging diverse thinking isn’t new and isn’t a short term solution to the current crisis, it’s about long term sustainable leadership behaviour. Can we teach people to think differently? Even more so, can we teach people to think independently, to think for themselves? Are we creating environments where it is safe enough to do so. Only with leaders creating environments where diverse thinking and inclusion matters, can we truly gain from the everyday genius of the people in the organisation and reap the benefits of that collective intelligence.

As a leader, ask yourself, am I really encouraging and embracing different thinking? Is that a given for me?  Is it a given for my people?   If the answer to either of these questions is no, how can you ensure that diversity of thought becomes your new differentiator?  
Go for difference; difference is good.