Diversity in APAC & Japan: Are you missing a critical piece? – An introduction to Cognitive Diversity and Global DISC™

While many companies have started to invest in diversity they often miss one piece which is crucial for greater effectiveness and better team performance.

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Many companies in APAC and Japan have moved beyond the point of questioning whether they need to diversify their teams and have started to make significant investments into diversity programs. However, many of those initiatives focus solely on increasing identity level diversity such as gender, race and age demographics. While it is promising to see organizations move in this direction, they often miss one piece which is crucial for greater organizational effectiveness, better team performance and, eventually, a stronger bottom line.

In this article we talked with two of Boyd & Moore’s Consulting Partners: Leadership & Transformational Coach Cory McGowan and Leadership & Communication Coach Christine Khalifah. Both are not only highly experienced in helping organizations diversify their teams but also are the only licensed Global DISC™ Consultants in Japan.

Introducing the experts

Christine Khalifah
Christine combines her work and training as a professional actor with her extensive experience as a leadership consultant to help professionals develop their communication agility, ease and impact. She works on both mindset and delivery, inviting her clients to not only reflect on and understand their behaviours and impact but also put into practice their desired skills through experiential training. Originally from Montreal Canada, she has lived and worked in North America, Europe and Japan and coached professionals from all over the globe.

Cory McGowan
Cory is an American who has lived more than half of his life outside of the US, and all of his professional life for the past 20 years in Japan. He has a diverse background of roles at all levels of management, all connected with the thread of people development. He took the leap three years ago pre-Covid to full time country living in Minakami, Gunma where he is rekindling his passion for the outdoors and adventure, and incorporating those into his transformational and leadership coaching practice.

When starting to work with clients what understanding of “diversity” do most of them initially have?

Cory: Diversity work is a very broad subject, so it is hard to generalize what understanding most companies have. But a personal example may help to show how diversity is often framed.

In the past, I worked with two organizations in Tokyo, an educational theme park and an international club. Both companies had approximately 400 employees, with a fairly even split of genders and age ranges. The biggest difference in the demographic makeup was nationality. While the amusement park employed about 95% Japanese people, the international club’s staff was only about 50% Japanese, with the remaining half from over 30 different countries.

Most people would argue that the international club had a much more diverse team. But, from personal experience, I know that the amusement park had a huge diversity in ideas and approaches which allowed the team to be one of the most successful branches of the global franchise.

The current diversity discourse is mainly focused on identity diversity. Where do you think identity diversity falls short and why?

Chris: I wouldn’t say that identity diversity falls short as bringing people together of diverse backgrounds and profiles is invaluable for any organization. The richness of the varied life experiences is a tremendous asset. However, I do believe that another aspect of diversity, namely cognitive diversity, is still underrepresented in the overall discourse.

Businesses can benefit greatly from focusing on the cognitive diversity of their teams. Research shows that a cognitively diverse team, able to harness the different perspectives of its members, will generate better problem-solving abilities and results than a team with low cognitive diversity.

Can you please explain what cognitive diversity means?

Chris: Cognitive diversity is the notion that we are diverse in the way we perceive things and process information. It cannot be predicted by gender, ethnicity or age. 

Cognitive diversity comprises of four different dimensions:

1.   Perspective: the way we represent situations and problems
2.   Interpretation: how we classify things
3.   Heuristics: how we problem solve
4.   Predictive models: the way we anticipate

We have all had times when we thought “How can they be acting like this? It’s common sense, isn’t it?!” However, keeping cognitive diversity in mind, common sense becomes less of a given. Because, what is common sense to you, is not to someone with a different cognitive profile and vice versa. Hence, Csaba Toth, the founder of Global DISC™ entitled his book about this very issue Uncommon Sense In Unusual Times.

We said that identity diversity does not necessarily correlate with cognitive diversity when it comes to building diverse teams. But, do these two relate to each other?

Cory: Very much so. Since our behavior is strongly influenced by the culture we grew up in, it only makes sense that there are similarities between people with certain demographics. However, things get interesting and, frankly, tough for many people when we start developing our own beliefs and drivers that cause us to act differently from most people in a particular region, culture or organization. By getting a better understanding of the ‘why’ behind our differences in behavior and communication we can get clarity on what makes us (and those around us) feel stretched and stressed, and more effectively close interaction gaps.

In addition, studies have found that teams with higher Identity Diversity have less “social loafing” which means that team members tend to “work harder to sell their point” since they can’t rely on the assumption that other members share the same cultural experience and knowledge. While this phenomenon can lead to greater insights and better performance, it can of course also cause greater stress and tension.

Chris: I think this is also one of the main reasons why building a cognitively diverse team can feel counterintuitive to many hiring managers and organizations. In order to avoid cognitive stress and dissonance, we naturally gravitate towards others who think like us.

Even if we consciously consider external factors such as age, nationality, gender, ability etc. with the intent of creating a more diverse team, our own cognitive bias can unconsciously lead us to hire or promote people with a similar cognitive profile to our own. And there is nothing wrong with that, but if we want to challenge ourselves to broaden our team’s cognitive flexibility, we have to look at identity diversity and, in addition to that, factor in their way of thinking and processing information.

Cognitive diversity tools such as Global DISC™ can help tremendously when it comes to building diverse teams as well as ease some of those common issues.

Why should organizations start thinking about cognitive diversity?

Cory: I would argue that companies are already thinking about cognitive diversity, although they may not know it by that name.

There are two main arguments for learning more about and getting started with cognitive diversity.

The first is that – as we have all learned in quite intense ways with the impact of COVID-19 – the complexity of the world we live in keeps increasing. Companies simply will not thrive in this challenging environment if they cannot empower their leaders and teams to better understand the what, how and – most importantly – why of their behavior and communication.

The second advantage of leveraging cognitive diversity is in terms of talent acquisition and management. Companies that understand the value of cognitive diversity often discover that 

there may be more diversity of thought within their current organization the they can leverage. This means that their target talent may pool wider than originally expected – a huge advantage especially in “talent-short” markets such as APAC and Japan.

Better performance, more innovation, wider talent pools – The benefits organizations can enjoy from more cognitive diversity are extremely compelling. How can organizations get started?

Chris: Thanks to research within the field, we can now measure how similarly or differently people think. We use the Global DISC™ assessment suite to help professionals and teams understand not only what different cognitive profiles look like in terms of behavior and communication but also how and why people think and act differently.

The first step in the process is to take an individual assessment that includes a very detailed results report, which is also supported by augmented reality (AR) tutorials. Next up is a debrief session with a certified Global DISC™ coach – a critical step in helping team members break down the model and their profile. This session is an insightful deep dive into understanding their preferred behavioral style and the values and drivers it is rooted in. While the results report alone can be impactful, a debrief with an expert practitioner consistently leads to deep understanding by helping people connect the results to their everyday life. Through seeing the cost and benefit of current behavior, meaningful change is initiated.

Following the Global DISC™ assessments, we reinforce the learning integration through the Global DISC™ Quest, an online interactive coaching platform. This is a 3-month journey that guides you through a series of missions that are designed to increase behavioral flexibility. Accountability and fun can be added by grouping people into pairs or pods to complete their Quests.

We then generate team reports, which measure a team’s cognitive diversity and therefore also their blind spots. Additionally, comparative country reports, which use the dominant cognitive profile of a country as a baseline, are provided that offer further insights into interaction gaps.

After the more introspective report debriefs, we design a series of customized team workshops to meet the specific development and learning objectives of our clients. These workshops equip participants with a practical understanding of the different profiles and how to communicate most effectively across these.

Global DISC™ has many practical applications. Our workshops give participants the theory as well as the opportunity to actively practice the new skills and the communication techniques they learn. This ensures participants take those first steps in a safe environment. Since people in the workshops will naturally have varied profiles, peers provide a lot of practical insight into different profiles during these sessions. Some of the topics include influencing, effective collaboration, giving feedback and confronting constructively, broadening your communication style and presentation skills.

We also often follow up with individual coaching. Ultimately, the goal is to help participants increase their impact, which in turn helps the teams and businesses they work for succeed.

Do you have examples of clients or organizations that have adopted cognitive diversity and Global DISC™ successfully?

Chris: I recently worked with a marketing team of seven professionals who took the Global DISC™ assessment. They learnt that the majority of the team is cognitively similar (people oriented) and that two members are rather different (task focused). As the reports could predict, there was very little conflict among the majority but at the same time, the majority often clashed with the team members who had a different profile. The flip side of the very little conflict was also very little challenge and a big blind spot, that these two people (rather unsuccessfully) had often flagged.

The results of the assessment were enlightening to them. In addition, it gave them a shared language and it made the invisible more explicit. It gave them the opportunity to talk about their dynamics and clarify intent. That is why Global DISC™ is fantastic at facilitating collaboration and communication.

Now they are all working on inviting the different perspectives to the table and choosing which approach is most suited to the issue. Of course, there are still hurdles, but they’re making huge improvements in how they face those. Lastly, they also use the cognitive models as a way of thinking outside the box, asking themselves “Hypothetically, what would someone with profile XY flag if they were looking at this? What might we be missing?”

Additionally, when they have a new hire, in the first few months after joining the team, that person does a Global DISC™ assessment and a debrief session so that they can join the conversation and embrace the approach. 

Is there anything else you want organizations to understand when it comes to cognitive diversity?

Chris: The process of unpacking your own drivers and values and understanding what drives others can be quite profound at times. All of a sudden, you realize the assumptions you made about someone else were wrong. You start to understand their perception and their needs.

The self-awareness and understanding of others that Global DISC™ facilitates is an integral part of building an inclusive workplace. It’s an appreciative model, meaning no profile is better or worse. So, the goal is not to change who you are or your cognitive perspective. That would be impossible anyways. The goal is to develop yourself, expand your behaviors and your agility. It is meant to help you invite others into a discussion and speak so that others can understand.

Ultimately if we learn to see things from another perspective, we work towards that necessary leadership quality of responding as opposed to reacting. 

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