Cognitive diversity in the boardrom

Geoff Trickey, Chartered Psychologist and CEO of Psychological Consultancy Ltd., assesses cognitive diversity in the boardroom (and teams), via the way in which we individually approach decision making. 

How are you different to Tom and Eli, your co-workers who have both been appointed to head up a new team within the sales division? We don’t mean differences such as gender, race and age (while incredibly important) – but risk personality.

As individuals, our risk personalities are very different – much more so than is generally appreciated. Booked last minute on a Friday lunchtime, Eli has just returned from a weekend break in Prague. Tom, on the other hand, is still meticulously planning his mini-break in Copenhagen, for 2025! This is cognitive diversity in action – decision making in the spotlight. Why is this so relevant to the workplace? And how can we assess cognitive diversity in the boardroom?

The extreme differences in Tom and Eli’s approach to decision making are illustrative of a range of distinctive differences in ‘cognitive style’ that characterise each of us in one way or another. These undercurrents of decision making, at play in any informal social gathering, add to the interest, variety, and liveliness of the occasion. However, in critical decision making moments, these same undercurrents can have serious, even alarming, implications. We all deal with decision making in our own individual ways – whether socially, domestically or in the workplace – and decision making shapes the future; the successes and the failures of any organisation.

Broadly, the population is split equally between risk-taking and risk-aversion, but this diversity is more usefully divided into eight distinctive Risk Types. What happens if a team or board is predominantly risk-taking with an adventurous, and potentially reckless, approach to decision making, such as Eli’s? Or missing opportunities due to their fear of taking uncalculated risks, such as Tom? On the other hand, if all members of the team (or the board) approach risk and decision making in the same way, this like-mindedness may feel comfortable but is a recipe for ‘groupthink’.

How to avoid groupthink in the boardroom? 

Self-awareness is key. Being aware of our own preferences allows us to take personal responsibility for our unique decision-making biases, harnessing our strengths, recognising our limitations and blind spots. This awareness encourages us to consider a diversity of inputs from those who view the world quite differently. Potentially, this mindset fosters mutual respect and transforms potential conflict into creative collaboration – and that makes a huge difference.

In a recent workshop run by my team, using the Risk Type Compass psychometric tool, we found the board members all fell onto the risk-taking end of the spectrum, while emotionally being very calm, optimistic and stress tolerant. This had obvious strengths for a senior decision-making team, however, it also highlighted blind spots in their approach, including a lack of urgency in implementation and overlooking past mistakes. A lot of agreement within the team did not necessarily mean the decisions being made were the most effective.

So, if Eli is aware of his impulsive approach to risk, he can learn something from a more meticulous Tom. Or, if Tom finds himself overanalysing decisions and missing opportunities, he could take on board the opinion of Eli. This balanced and inclusive route to decision making allows Tom and Eli to:

  1. Be alert to the pitfalls of any impulsive, inconsistent, inflexible, or overcautious tendencies
  2. Tune in to complementary or conflicting aspects of the risk dispositions around them
  3. Expose the team dynamics to encourage awareness, cohesion, and team effectiveness
  4. Build mutual respect and maximise the diverse perspectives of individual risk dispositions

I’m not for a minute suggesting replacing a team or board that shares a common approach to risk, but the capacity to consider and appreciate that other opinions – opinions that reflect alternative views and different ways of interpreting situations – clearly broadens the agenda and introduces an important degree of balance. Political and legal decisions are routinely subjected to adversarial pressures and, in military and major policy development, this adversarial scenario has often been replicated by ‘Red Teaming’, in which a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ is assigned the role of challenging any consensus. Even better if each party is familiar with their own Risk Type and has a grasp of the implications of other people’s Risk Types. Within a context of mutual respect, cognitive diversity in teams and boardrooms maximises decision-making talents, minimises groupthink, and empowers the quality of decision making needed in today’s fast-changing climate.

 We need to thoughtfully embrace risk-taking in pursuit of our goals. On that, we can agree” David Koenig, President, and Chief Executive Officer of the DCRO Institute.

The Risk Type Compass is a BPS approved psychometric assessment that places individuals into one of eight Risk Types. If you’d like to find out your Risk Type, you can complete a complimentary (shortened) version of the Risk Type Compass here. For more information about how the tool supports the identification of cognitive diversity in the boardroom, get in touch! 

Keen to learn more about the Risk Type Compass tool?