Cognitive diversity – why it should be top of your list in 2021

Guest post by Dee Tamlin, head of legal project management, and Stuart Affleck, director of Brook Graham (a diversity and inclusion consultancy), at Vario from Pinsent Masons

Dee Tamlin

For the legal profession, the focus on fostering a diverse workplace has been growing over the past few years. Last year, the Solicitors Regulation Authority published its diversity figures for the profession, revealing 49% of lawyers are women, 21% BAME and 3% disabled.

Whilst many firms have made admirable leaps to improve diversity, both at board level and more broadly, one area of diversity that is less well-known or reported on is that of cognitive diversity.

Your first question may well be, what on earth is cognitive diversity? And why is it important?

Simply put, cognitive diversity is ensuring those sat around a table think differently – having different opinions, approaches and backgrounds is vitally important for firms. If a team is made up of only lawyers who had a public school education, attended Oxbridge, did a training contract at a magic circle firm and whose parents are professionals, then they will have similar frames of reference.

At a time when clients are coming to their law firms with complex business challenges, having one frame of reference isn’t conducive to providing a variety of innovative business solutions. A combination of skills is often needed, from lawyers to forensic accountants, data analysts to legal project managers.

Research from Ashridge Business School’s Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, director of London Business School’s senior executive programme, found that senior teams who are cognitively diverse tended to solve problems the fastest, although acknowledged that a degree of psychological safety was still important.

Psychological safety “is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”, they wrote in The Harvard Business Review.

In 2021, cognitive diversity for firms will be more important than ever before as the pandemic continues to bite and the business landscape is set to continue to be incredibly challenging for many.

In these circumstances, new thinking can help facilitate much-needed innovative approaches to problems.

Whilst experience is of course important in a law firm, when facing unchartered territory like 2021, seniority isn’t necessarily the most important attribute to solving problems. Developing cognitive diversity in all teams, senior or not is needed and ensuring the most junior, least experienced person has a voice is important too.

Reynolds and Lewis point out that a lack of cognitive diversity has two impacts: “First, it reduces the opportunity to strengthen the proposition with input from people who think differently. Second, it fails to represent the cognitive diversity of the employee population, reducing the impact of the initiatives.”

A cognitively diverse team, Reynolds and Lewis conclude, are much more likely to solve problems faster. Thereby creating significant cost benefits and other efficiencies for businesses.

Stuart Affleck

In fact, Deloitte’s 2017 global human capital trends report cites an example from Qantas airlines. The company’s CEO, Alan Joyce, credited its transformation from record loss in 2013 to record profit in 2017 to increased diversity of thought.

He said: “We have a very diverse environment and a very inclusive culture.” Those characteristics “got us through the tough times… diversity generated better strategy, better risk management, better debates, [and] better outcomes”.

So, what can law firms do to improve cognitive diversity and ensure it is a priority for the New Year?

Firstly, it is worth acknowledging that you may already have cognitive diversity within the firm – but cultural barriers are preventing individuals from feeling comfortable enough to show their ‘different’ thinking.

Going back to the research by Reynolds and Lewis, psychological safety is an important factor in ensuring cognitive diversity is felt. For example, fostering an environment where junior lawyers feel like they can speak out is very important.

Law firms need to have a meaningful approach to culture change – this starts with being very much rooted in reality. For instance, firms need to recognise that they may have a problem with unconscious bias and recruiting in their own image before they can tackle the problem.

Affinity bias means that naturally we lean towards those individuals who we can find common ground with and this often translates to firms hiring very similar people time and time again because they know what works and who gels with the wider team.

There are specialists out there who can help too. A legal project manager can ensure the right type of resource is used in the cognitively diverse project team and a diversity & inclusion specialist can advise on how to build an inclusive culture where cognitively diverse talent will thrive in the long term.

Going against the grain can feel like an unnecessary risk, but once firms recognise the benefits of having a team with diversity of thought, where people feel comfortable and supported to express their views, they will start to see the strategic benefits.

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