Cognitive diversity and board performance: Enhancing organisational success

by Suzanne Schultz Board and Governance Specialist


Diversity has become an increasingly vital consideration in today’s business landscape, and its impact is particularly profound in the boardroom. While much of the discourse around diversity has centred on demographic differences, such as gender and ethnicity, there is a growing realisation that cognitive diversity is a pivotal factor in driving board performance and organisational success.

In this article, we delve into the concept of cognitive diversity, explore its tie-in with the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI)® and outline its profound significance in improving board dynamics.


Understanding cognitive diversity

Cognitive diversity encompasses the varied perspectives, knowledge, abilities and insights that individuals bring to a team. It transcends traditional demographic markers, focusing instead on the diverse ways individuals approach problem solving, decision making and innovation.

While demographic diversity is undoubtedly invaluable, cognitive diversity goes deeper, emphasising the importance of different thinking styles, frames of reference and mental processes. This distinction is vital, especially in boardrooms, where effective decision-making requires a multitude of viewpoints.


Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument®: A blueprint for realising cognitive diversity

The HBDI® provides a comprehensive framework for achieving cognitive diversity. The model identifies four distinct thinking preferences – analytical, practical, relational and experimental.

  1. Analytical thinkers excel at data analysis, logical reasoning and strategic planning. They ensure boards consider facts, figures and evidence before making decisions. Analytical thinkers contribute to robust deliberations grounded in research.
  2. Practical thinkers focus on implementation, organisation and execution. They bring a results-oriented mindset to the boardroom, ensuring strategies translate into tangible outcomes and operational efficiency.
  3. Relational thinkers emphasise collaboration, empathy and stakeholder relationships. They consider the human aspect of decisions, ensuring that an organisation’s actions align with its values and resonate positively with stakeholders.
  4. Experimental thinkers are innovative risk-takers who thrive on exploring new ideas and possibilities. They challenge the status quo, driving boards to consider unchartered opportunities and disruptive innovations.

Integrating HBDI® helps directors recognise their own thinking styles and those of their colleagues, fostering effective board dynamics and a culture of respect for diverse approaches to problem solving.


The transformative impact on board performance

Why is cognitive diversity crucial for board performance? The heart of the matter lies in the concept of ‘collective intelligence’. A board’s ability to make well-informed decisions hinges on the richness of perspectives it encompasses. Without cognitive diversity, a board may suffer from ‘blind spots’, where directors fail to consider alternative viewpoints, thereby leading to suboptimal decisions.

In contrast, a cognitively diverse board shines a light on these blind spots, enabling a more holistic understanding of complex issues and facilitating innovative solutions. This diversity of thought drives a number of transformative outcomes for boards.

Enhanced problem solving and strategic decision making

Boards consisting of members with diverse cognitive preferences are better equipped to tackle multifaceted challenges. Boards can tackle complex issues systematically by leveraging the strengths of each thinking style, as discussions become well-rounded as directors offer unique insights.

This blend of thinking styles ensures boards are better positioned to make strategic decisions and enables a balanced analysis of potential outcomes and long-term implications.

Effective risk management

A mix of thinking styles helps boards evaluate risks comprehensively. Analytical thinkers may focus on data-driven risks, while practical thinkers consider operational implications. Relational thinkers emphasise stakeholder impacts and experimental thinkers explore unchartered territories. The holistic approach enhances risk assessment and decision making.

Adaptability to change

In an era of constant change, boards need to be adaptable. Cognitive diversity fosters flexibility by promoting a culture where different viewpoints are valued, enabling boards to make agile decisions in response to shifting market dynamics.


A lack of cognitive diversity can harm board dynamics

It is no secret to this point that cognitive diversity is vital for harnessing the full potential of a board of directors. Unfortunately, dominant personalities and information cascades can hinder productive discussions.

Dominant personalities can monopolise discussions and thereby stifle contributions from others. This disrupts the balanced exchange of ideas, inhibiting the benefits of cognitive diversity.

Additionally, information cascades lead to the uncritical adoption of opinions, hindering robust decision making.

To mitigate these issues, boards must actively manage their dynamics. Techniques such as rotating speaking orders, encouraging equal participation and periodic pauses can promote equitable contributions and prevent the suppression of diverse viewpoints.


When diversity may not be beneficial

While cognitive diversity is a boon for most scenarios, there are instances where its benefits might not be fully realised. For problems requiring objective solutions, the expertise of a subject matter specialist may be more valuable than diverse perspectives.

Additionally, during the implementation phase of decisions, diverse opinions could lead to confusion and hinder execution. Recognising these situations is essential to strike the right balance between cognitive diversity and focused decision making.


Board evaluations foster effective cognitive diversity

Periodic board evaluations, conducted by independent third parties, play a pivotal role in nurturing cognitive diversity. Evaluations provide insights into board dynamics, revealing patterns of dominance or information cascades. These evaluations identify areas for improvement, enabling the board to address any shortcomings and create an environment conducive to open dialogue, respectful debate and shared decision making.

Our approach

Through our work with boards from a wide range of industries across government, private and not-for-profit sectors, Directors Australia has identified a clear gap in the understanding of and approach to cognitive diversity in effective governance.

As such, our cognitive diversity service offering utilises the HBDI® to understand the thinking styles of directors and boards, thereby improving board dynamics. The HBDI® teaches individuals to communicate both with those who think the same as them and those who think differently.

Our service offering draws on our deep understanding of the role boards and governance in organisations to strengthen board effectiveness.

Our approach:

  • Gather data: We prepare a HBDI® thinking preference profile for each director (and executive) and also produce a collective group view of board (and management) cognitive styles.
  • Facilitate application: We use the data collected alongside our extensive knowledge of effective board dynamics and performance to facilitate a half day workshop with the board to recognise and respect differences, value the voice of all directors and identify ways to improve board functionality and decision making.
  • Develop practical actions: Following delivery of the workshop, we provide a brief report for the board with practical actions to improve dynamics, performance and decision-making across the board and with the CEO and executive team.
Cultivating a holistic boardroom ecosystem

In an era of complexity and rapid change, organisations can no longer rely on a monolithic approach to decision making. Cognitive diversity, as informed by the HBDI®, offers a powerful avenue for achieving well-rounded, innovative and effective boards.

By embracing diverse thinking styles and fostering an inclusive boardroom culture, organisations position themselves to make informed decisions that drive sustainable success. To harness the full potential of cognitive diversity, boards must actively manage dynamics, conduct regular evaluations and strike a thoughtful balance between diverse perspectives and targeted decision making. In doing so, organisations can navigate challenges with agility, capitalise on emerging opportunities and thrive in an ever-evolving business landscape.


Contact us to find out more, or to discuss your board’s needs.

Recent Posts


The need for independence and diversity of experience in law firm boards: a path to sustainable growth and navigating client expectations

Read more
Read more