Organisational Culture and Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace


In this article I argue that it is impossible to fully develop cognitive diversity unless implicit and explicit knowledge in relation to an organisation’s culture, ideally, from the perspective of an ‘insider’ (Baskin, 2019) has been explored. Insiders have the capacity to bring tacit cultural knowledge to consciousness for a fuller exploration of the organisation’s cultural assumptions, central systems of meaning, tacit knowledge concerning the organisation’s primary sources of control and authority as well as knowledge pertaining to their subjects. In short, an insider’s cultural analysis is more likely to uncover potential roadblocks for developing cognitive diversity in the workplace.


Currently, COVID-19 is challenging senior leaders and their employees in ways not previously experienced. For instance, senior leaders are wrestling with strategies to entice their employees back to the office as well as grappling with engagement approaches to help keep their employee’s emotions and commitment tied to the organisation over virtual forums. Perhaps now, senior leaders would benefit from thinking, talking and reflecting about the concept of cognitive diversity, not only for the purpose of employee engagement, but also, to help ride out the COVID-19 storm by tapping into diverse cognition across the occupational community in order to solve the organisation’s current problems. COVID-19 could, therefore, be viewed as an ideal catalyst for senior leaders and their employees to think, reflect and engage in ways they have not previously considered. To begin this discussion, let’s first explore both the conceptual and empirical complexities of cognitive diversity.


Conceptual definitions of cognitive diversity are multifarious and can be interpreted as rather inconsistent across various literature including the professional and academic variety. While theoretically it is hard for researchers to distinctively agree on what cognitive diversity is and what it is not, empirically, it is more difficult to make a claim about the value of cognitive diversity in the workplace since there appear to be a million ways to construe it and empirically test it, each method with perceived benefits and pitfalls. How then, can senior leaders assess the degree of cognitive diversity in their workplace? Moreover, how can senior leaders develop a framework for cognitive diversity in alignment with the organisation’s strategy, structure and culture? Given the conflicting literature, it is conceivable that senior leaders and their employees perceive cognitive diversity as unclear, confusing and perhaps not worth pursuing. Yet, senior leaders do have available to them some control over the matter. New knowledge can be generated and shared and, therefore, potential value recognised in developing frameworks specific to the needs of each organisation by considering three levels of analysis, a point which this article will return.


According to Shin, Kim, Lee and Bian (2012), cognitive diversity is the difference in thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values and beliefs among people in teams. Yet, this conceptual definition does not entirely capture an important psychological dimension, notably, developing new neural pathways through learning. Continuous education and professional expertise deepens an employee’s level of influence when expressing their viewpoints. Hence Tegarden, Tegarden and Sheetz’s (2009) conceptual definition of cognitive diversity, in my view, should also be considered. Tegarden, Tegarden and Sheetz (2009) argue that education, professional experience and personal background are fundamental to a conceptual definition of cognitive diversity. Taking these conceptual definitions together is a reasonable starting point. However, as mentioned, to build a framework for developing cognitive diversity, a deeper analysis of an organisation’s strategy, structure and culture are necessary. In this article, I discuss only one component, that is, the need for a fuller exploration of an organisation’s culture, ideally from an insider's viewpoint to ascertain the organisation's systems of cultural meaning as well as any potential roadblocks that could inhibit developing a framework for cognitive diversity. Let’s consider how an 'insider' goes about gaining cultural knowledge.


Gaining Cultural Knowledge


Very broadly, most senior leaders and management consultants alike have reduced their understanding of culture by adopting a range of oversimplified measures that use an outsider’s language with pre-populated answers to ascertain how ‘good,’ ‘not good’ or some variation between the two extremes an organisation’s culture is claimed to be. Despite the overwhelming dislike of questionnaires as broadly experienced by employees, external consultants, senior leaders and their direct reports send questionnaires to their team members in hope the scores reflect high levels of engagement and indications that the culture is experienced as, more or less, ‘good.’ Some line managers personally request their employees answer survey questions favourably, as one of my past research participants from a Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company said:


The company survey, well, it doesn’t give me the opportunity to be honest and be myself and really say what I think is happening. Apparently, it’s anonymous. However, the whole team was sent the previous year’s results from our manager. She even sent an email saying, “our survey results last year were amazing and I hope to see them even better this year”…Before she mentioned the survey in the email, she told us how proud she was of everyone, for our resilience, professionalism, self-motivation, hard work and friendship and that she feels she is leading a high performing team…The questions were more or less based on a rating scale of one to five, one being the lowest and five being the highest. I lied, because I didn’t want to be found out or weeded out because the previous year’s results were available and I was the only new team member so if there was something that went against the grain, she would know it was a response to the survey made by me…She got a perfect score. [1]

As mentioned, one significant problem with questionnaires in terms of measuring an organisation’s culture is that employees try to interpret the questions based on an outsider’s language. It is not too far a stretch to suggest that in organisational life, interpretations made either in response to verbal or written content, can skew. Aside from the language issue, surveys do not consider the underlying systems of meaning of the organisation’s dominant culture nor its various subcultures. Moreover, questionnaires do not consider both superficial and deep dimensions of an organisation’s culture. For instance, unlike the cultural work carried out by an insider, culture surveys do not identify nor have the capacity to interpret an organisation’s artefacts and deeper guidelines or rules for action, let alone the capacity to identify emerging cultural rules which transpire under an employee’s threshold of consciousness.


I am arguing that surveys are broadly disliked by employees, generally over oversimplified, often misleading and distorted by way of interpretation by employees who complete them. Let us now discuss how a nuanced approach for the analysis of an organisation’s culture, that is, from an ‘insider’s’ (Baskin, 2019) perspective could be of value in determining how cognitive diversity can be developed within it, starting with the organisation’s cultural artefacts.


Cultural artefacts are tangible and accessible in terms of our sensory experience. For instance, you enter your place of work every day. You walk to reception and enter the lifts to reach your hot-desk. What do you observe and experience along the way? The corporate dress code or codes? The mood in the office? People tied to their mobile phones or their computer screens? What do colleagues express and to whom? What are the senior execs doing and saying? What about front-line staff? How do they differ in terms of behaviour in comparison to senior leaders or those in head office? What about the demographic profiles reflected across various levels of the occupational hierarchy? What interpretations, if any, can be made? In other words, an artefact is anything that is concrete in nature. Artefacts are superficial dimensions of culture. On their own, artefacts do not give us enough cultural information. From this perspective, artefacts need to be coupled with cultural knowledge derived at a much finer level of analysis.


Let’s take the organisation’s institutionalised language. What styles of language do people use to express themselves? Is it casual, formal, in between or context specific? Do members speak to each other differently depending on tenure, seniority, level of education or cultural differences? What about forums for expression and the differences in language experienced when others, either above, below or of equal occupational stature are involved? What interpretations, if any, can be made about the jargon and specific technicalities reflected in the organisation’s institutionalised language?


What about the values of the organisation? Most companies have a vision statement, a mission statement and of course, they have their prescribed values. What are they? Are the values espoused or are they enacted? By whom? And is employee behaviour consistent with the organisation’s values across the occupational community? Are values recalled easily? How would one know if the values have been internalised by senior leaders and their employees? Do staff pretend to enact the company values in front of their line managers or senior leaders? Are performances authentic? And what about values that are informally practiced? In other words, values that aren't necessarily written in black and white. How would one recognise informal values or the emergence of them as a result of a crisis such as COVID-19?


What about the organisation’s reward and recognition programmes? Who is rewarded for their work and are rewards based on merit or some other implicit metric? Are there any demographic patterns associated with those who are rewarded implicitly? If so, what are those patterns? How is behaviour positively reinforced, by whose standards and through what measures? And why is this the case?


What about employee sanctions, punishments or performance management strategies? If an employee is showing misalignment to the organisation’s strategic priorities, structural dynamics and or culture, how is behaviour managed or controlled in such cases? Under what conditions are employees allowed to stay on? Would those conditions be consistently reflected across all staff members within the organisation or are employees measured and sanctioned depending upon transient, context specific issues or other factors?


Moreover, organisational symbols are cultural phenomena worth considering. Founders are symbols. For instance, Steve Jobs was a symbol of innovation. Steve Jobs inspired many people both within Apple and external to it. From this perspective, all organisations start from their founders who often have strong symbolic connections to their national culture. One of the most fundamental tasks for senior leaders is to be able to shift their own personality in a direction that is suitable for a growing organisational social system.


Perhaps your CEO started the organisation in their shed. That's a powerful story! Schematic images such as one of the founders slogging away for peanuts to build the organisation from the bottom upwards may be internalised by employees making them feel uniquely part of the organisation’s social reality. Put differently, an employee may bind their sense of self to the organisation’s mission and its strategic priorities if and when interpreting and internalising such narratives. Indeed, each employee comes to work with a backstory. Senior leaders who tap into their employee’s narratives have an advantage in that these stories can be used as vehicles for normative control (Kunda, 2009) by developing commonalities between them and their teams in some way, shape or form.


Another symbol worth considering is the organisation’s logo and the meaning it may induce to an organisation’s customer base and to its employees. What can be made from the interpretation of a logo? Logo’s may have narratives attached to them and shared during behavioural socialisation inductions or company training. In addition, specific narratives that aim to tie employee emotions and commitment to the company are often expressed by senior leaders. Narratives of this sort are usually coupled with corporate rhetoric in order to promote a view of consensus to employees by helping them align their behaviour to the organisation’s culture.


How about the organisation's strategic priorities? Is the organisation purely profit driven? Or are its senior leaders balancing the need for generating profit with a focus on employee health and well being? What combination of factors determine the organisation’s strategic priorities? If so, what are they? And why?


The questions highlighted above are by no means exhaustive. Nonetheless, they are important for senior leaders and their employees to unpack, understand and reflect upon should they wish to determine a baseline level of knowledge pertaining to the underlying systems of meaning and potential assumptions that can be made of their organisation’s culture. From here, senior leaders and their teams can embark upon a discussion around the relationship between the organisation’s culture and developing a potential framework specific to the company’s needs for cognitive diversity. Now, of central concern, this article explains how an organisation’s system of cultural meaning may manifest.


Centrality of Culture


While cultures within organisations emerge, culture, like most tacit phenomena has a point of origin. This point of origin typically includes a range of factors, including but not limited to, the founder’s values, beliefs, worldviews and the rules, both written and unwritten that the founder or the organisation’s senior executives expect their employees to follow. In other words, while culture emerges and re-emerges over time, there is a large portion of an organisation’s culture which is prescribed, described, reinforced, espoused and enacted by senior leaders. From this perspective, those at the top of the occupational hierarchy are positioned at the center of an organisation’s culture, yet, senior executives are not always those who hold the most power in organisations.


Senior leaders usually exercise their power and authority over the management of the organisation’s culture in order to get employees to do what they want them to do. From this perspective, senior leaders are in charge of prescribing and describing the organisation’s culture, either directly, for instance, through performance ritual or indirectly, through delegating tasks to their direct reports including People and Culture teams amongst others. The control that senior leaders possess over an organisation’s culture is normative in the sense that employees expect such actions from their leaders. From this perspective, senior leaders work as the organisation’s primary agents of normative control (Kunda, 2009) by ensuring their employees do that which they would not otherwise do (Ailon, 2006) in alignment with the organisation’s culture. However, if we take a closer look at the demographic profiles of ASX listed companies, the primary agents of normative control, in other words, those at the center of culture typically reflect, more or less, one specific cohort.


According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Blueprint on Cultural Diversity in Leadership (2016), more than 75% of CEOs are of Anglo-Celtic heritage. 18% have European heritage and 5% are from a non-European background.[2] Unfortunately, when this report was published, no CEOs had Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage in these 200 companies. In addition, the AHRC’s Leading for Change (2018) report determined that while 97% of the nearly 2500 executives surveyed had Anglo-Celtic and European backgrounds, the report explained those with an Indigenous and non-European background accounted for 24% of the population, however, these cohorts only comprised 5% of the senior leadership suite.[3,4]


Taking the facts above into consideration, if senior leaders deliberate upon the nation’s demographic diversity and contrast this reality with cohorts largely representing boards and senior leadership teams, it is conceivable that cognitive diversity may not get a mention in the boardroom, let alone a serious discussion about its potential value to an organisation’s strategic priorities and their outcomes. Moreover, how does national culture and the ideology that drives modern politics, as well as other factors including the lack of demographic diversity in our parliament affect the way senior leaders view, understand and legitimise culture in their organisations?


Perhaps one question worth reflecting upon is: what does one do with power once they have it? Alternatively, unpacking how senior leaders arrive in positions of authority is a worthy introspective pursuit. How did I get here? Why am I here? What do I make of my position within the occupational community? How does my position help or hinder my ability to contribute to the organisation and to its people? Am I all about profit? What is my legacy?


Those who do not demographically reflect the cohorts typically at the center of an organisation’s culture must however fit somewhere and they tend to fall someplace on the periphery. From this perspective, we might like to consider organisational sub-cultures or subgroups and those who would likely participate in them. According to Martin (2001), sub-cultures may be bound by occupational lines, including managerial, professional and or blue-collar employees. Organisational sub-cultures may also ‘proceed along functional or vertical lines, or on the basis of networks or personal contacts based on work, friendship or demographic identities such as race, ethnicity, gender’ and so forth (Martin, 2001:103). Indeed, organisational sub-cultures may have rigid or blurred boundaries. In some cases, employees of sub-cultures may also deliberately blur their boundaries (Kondo, 1990; Kunda, 2009). Taking Martin’s (2001) view, it is conceivable that greater demographic diversity could be observed within sub-cultures and subgroups.


For instance, consider the demographic diversity within an organisation’s front-line or sales team. Generally, front-line employees represent greater demographic diversity because there is both a perceived and realised economic value for hiring individuals who demographically reflect the company’s customer base. Front-line teams may represent demographic diversity in higher ratios in comparison to head office in relation to Cultural and Linguistic Diversity (CALD), LGBTIQ+, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people with disabilities, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, older and younger cohorts as well as those with diverse religious views, beliefs and cultural practices, diverse worldviews and so forth. Conceivably, if senior leaders venture toward the periphery of an organisation’s culture and expand their knowledge base concerning those who make up the organisation’s various sub-cultures and subgroups, it is possible that senior leaders may come to understand how members on the periphery come to view the organisation’s dominant culture and how they act with a finer level of detail. Indeed, the views held by peripheral members will more likely be varied, fragmented and at times opposing to the views held by senior leaders. In addition, perspectives flux because culture is not static. Culture emerges and re-emerges, it shifts and re-shifts based on a series of factors. Such factors, as previously explained, can be found both within the organisational environment and external to it such as COVID-19.


Moreover, if senior leaders decide to purposefully engage with staff members on the periphery of an organisation’s culture, how would they recognise if those staff members present authentic viewpoints? Or simply self-presentations that enact cultural alignment during encounters with sources of authority? As one of my research participants explained:


The culture, we have to talk about how fantastic the company is and we are always told to share how great things are about the company. There are endless WhatsApp messages, people putting up how fantastic their role is and all the fantastic things they have done throughout the day. If you are not that type of person, you get found out straight away and they are generally moved on.[5]

Indeed, most if not all employees seek job security. Thus, employees likely act differently in front of important others versus one’s team or even in isolation as a way to preserve their membership and its legitimacy within the organisation. This observation is quite obvious for organisational anthropologists who spend significant periods of time studying employees in the workplace, observing members closer to the center as well as members on the margins. Yet, the concept of marginality becomes increasingly complex when considering intersectionality. According to Collins and Bilge (2020), intersectionality investigates how categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, ability, ethnicity and age intersect and how they are mutually shaping. Intersectionality, therefore, can be considered a way of understanding people and human experiences within the organisational setting. Indeed, marginal staff members who represent various degrees of intersectionality may experience unconscious (and conscious) bias and this experience may lead to social exclusion. Typically, social exclusion is a negative experience that reinforces a member's position on the periphery of an organisation’s culture. How senior leaders and their teams think and reflect about marginality and intersectionality is, therefore, imperative for developing cognitive diversity in the workplace.


Naturally, thoughts and reflections about oneself in the workplace might lead to thoughts and reflections about diverse others and hopefully a career long desire to learn something new about the organisation’s social reality and one’s actions within it. Learning about oneself and diverse others by bringing tacit cultural knowledge to consciousness, by design, expands the realm of cognitive diversity in the workplace, bringing with it an emerging framework.


A Framework for Developing Cognitive Diversity


This article proposes that when senior leaders and their employees purposefully ask questions to gain new knowledge at three levels of analysis, notably, the individual level, sub-cultural and subgroup level and in relation to both broader and finer levels of cultural knowledge, a useful framework for developing cognitive diversity emerges.


To extrapolate, at the individual level, it is important to revisit the conceptual definitions proposed by Shin, Kim, Lee and Bian (2012) who argued that cognitive diversity is the difference in thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values and beliefs. To recap, Tegarden, Tegarden and Sheetz’s (2009) conceptual definition proposed that education, professional experience and personal background reflects cognitive diversity. By taking these conceptual definitions together, senior leaders and their employees can bring to conscious awareness individual and collective thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, education, professional experience and personal backgrounds for a fuller exploration of individual and collective value. Indeed, intrinsic knowledge of this sort becomes increasingly valuable when it is shared. Hence, at the second level analysis, new knowledge is shared and gained across the occupational community.


At the second level of analysis, that is, at the sub-cultural and subgroup level as Martin (2001) and other scholars define it, individuals may share knowledge across 'occupational lines, including managerial, functional and or vertical lines, or on the basis of personal contacts and networks, friendship and demographic identities such as race, ethnicity or gender’ (Martin, 2001:103). Indeed, this task involves a great deal of curiosity, empathy and soft skills. Yet, this step should be carried out in combination with the third level of analysis, that is, gaining knowledge by asking questions concerning broader, finer and tacit details of the organisation’s culture, an employee’s alignment or misalignment to it, an employee’s position within it, in relation to peers, senior leaders and others across subgroups and the broader occupational hierarchy. By gaining knowledge and exploring insights in relation to these three levels of analysis, potential cultural roadblocks are exposed.


For instance, the organisation’s culture and its systems of meaning may reflect assumptions that are simply at odds with cognitive diversity. It may, for instance, broadly, or at a sub-cultural level reflect social exclusion, mistrust or it may lack necessary communication transparency amongst other factors which would likely inhibit effort at developing cognitive diversity. Such issues should be dealt with separately by senior leaders and their teams before going further. This work must precede the more complex yet valuable task, that of cultivating cognitive diversity in an effort to solve real-world problems the organisation is grappling with in aiming to achieve its strategic objectives.


At some point, however, the emerging data will likely reflect great contrast and a degree of middle-ground in relation to thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, education, professional experience and personal backgrounds. The data should equally expose knowledge gained through diverse others who form part of sub-cultures, subgroups and other membership groups including the executive leadership team as well as knowledge in relation to the organisation’s culture from the perspective of each staff member. This data must be assessed objectively, particularly when selecting the suitability of staff members for dealing with context specific problems and or crisis issues. Thus, employee suitability must be measured against a value contribution matrix for cognitive diversity in order to solve specific organisational problems with a sense of fairness.


A value contribution matrix for cognitive diversity proposes a storage and retrieval system of data concerning the potential value an employee can contribute to a particular problem, a crisis issue or to a specific organisational strategic objective. A value contribution matrix for cognitive diversity is based on data captured at three levels of analysis. In doing so, it deliberately avoids nepotism, favouritism and or any other preference for involving an individual other than their potential value to contribute based on fact. Indeed, not all employees are able to contribute equally to a particular problem or project. However, problems emerge at all levels of organisational work and hence, opportunities to contribute should be plentiful for all staff members.


At this point, it is important to reiterate that the proposed framework for developing cognitive diversity is oversimplified from the perspective that it has not taken into account various organisational structures that may shape how cognitive diversity plays out within the organisation. I will address the issue of organisational structure and cognitive diversity in an upcoming article. Nor does this article focus upon one, nor any specific organisational strategy to base this framework upon. As mentioned at the outset, a framework for developing cognitive diversity must consider, in detail, the organisation’s strategy, its structure and its culture. This article simply introduces one component for exploration, notably, how the organisation’s culture should be analysed in depth by an insider as well as by senior leaders and their employees before embarking upon developing a framework for cognitive diversity. In addition, developing a framework for cognitive diversity must first rectify problematic cultural roadblocks.


Conclusion


This article presented two key arguments and a framework for developing cognitive diversity. The first argument proposed that fully realising the potential of cognitive diversity in the workplace can only transpire if an organisation’s culture is analysed in depth by taking an insider’s view to understand the assumptions and the systems of cultural meaning to identify its potential roadblocks. The second argument proposed that an organisation's culture, its various subcultures as well as the demographic profiles associated to each should be critically analysed. By uncovering and critically discerning these factors within the organisational environment and across the occupational community, this article proposes that new knowledge is generated at three levels, notably, the individual, sub-cultural or subgroup level and the cultural level for which a framework for developing cognitive diversity can be built specific to the needs of the company.


About the author

T.A. Kiaos Ph.D (c) is an Organisational Anthropologist specialising in critical ethnographic research methods. T.A. Kiaos' research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control, with a particularly strong focus on how these interconnected phenomena affect marginal cohorts in the workplace.


Contact: connect@diversityfirst.com.au


1. Research interview with Sienna at FMCG company.

2. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC, 2016: 75–76) uses four broad classifications for cultural background. See Beyond the Pale: Cultural diversity on ASX 100 listed boards for definitions.

3. The Australian Human Rights Commission, 2016 and 2018.

4. The Australian Human Rights Commission (2019). Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural

diversity and inclusive leadership.

5. Research interview with Joanne at FMCG company.


References

Ailon, G. (2006). What B would otherwise do: a critique of conceptualizations of ‘power’ in organizational theory. Organization, 13 (6), 771-800.

Bruskin, S. (2019). Insider or outsider? Exploring the fluidity of the roles through social identity theory. Journal of Organizational Ethnography.

Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2020). Intersectionality. John Wiley & Sons.

Kondo, D. K. (1990). Crafting selves: Power, gender, and discourses of identity in a Japanese workplace. University of Chicago Press.

Kunda, G. (2009). Engineering culture: Control and commitment in a high-tech corporation. Temple University Press.

Martin, J. (2001). Organizational culture: Mapping the terrain. Sage publications.

Shin, S. J., Kim, T. Y., Lee, J. Y., & Bian, L. (2012). Cognitive team diversity and individual team member

creativity: A cross-level interaction. Academy of Management Journal, 55(1), 197-212.

Tegarden, D. P., Tegarden, L. F., & Sheetz, S. D. (2009). Cognitive factions in a top management team: Surfacing and analysing cognitive diversity using causal maps. Group Decision and Negotiation, 18(6), 537-566.

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