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It’s now widely accepted that cognitive diversity – that variety of problem-solving and thinking styles – can improve the way in which teams operate. But can the same diversity of thinking be applied to an individual leader with similar benefits? A new study suggests that it can.

We’re doing some interesting work at the moment with a client around the idea of cognitive diversity combined with psychological safety. Here’s the thinking: we know that to create optimal conditions for effective collaboration within a team you need to cultivate an environment of high psychological safety and high cognitive diversity. This is a “generative” thinking style. In short, you encourage a diverse range of thoughts and opinions, without making harsh judgements about people as they express them.

A few years ago, an analysis by Alison Reynolds, a member of the faculty at the UK’s Ashridge Business School and David Lewis, Director of London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme, of 150 senior teams revealed that the ones who solve problems the fastest tend to be cognitively diverse. However, they discovered that this isn’t always the case.

To find out why some teams still struggle, Reynolds and Lewis looked at what characterises the best examples of groups working together. They discovered that it’s a blend of cognitive diversity and psychological safety. This means that teams exhibit behaviour that is both curious and encouraging. Groups working together that featured high cognitive diversity, but low psychological safety tended to be too combative while those with the reverse traits were prone to group-think.

Psychological flexibility – the key to great relationships

But teams aside, perhaps we also need to be more flexible as individual leaders with our own thinking and problem-solving styles, using whichever is most appropriate in a particular situation. This is psychological flexibility – and the evidence suggests that it could be the key to great relationships.

This idea is supported by research published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioural Science at the end of last year. Jennifer Daks and Ronald Rogge, two psychologists at the University of Rochester, analysed data from 203 separate samples. They focussed on measures of psychological flexibility and inflexibility within these studies and how they related to measures of family and relationship functioning.

Their research suggests that someone who is psychologically flexible has a range of attitudes and skills that they can bring to bear in any situation. They’re also more likely to be open to new experiences, whether those experiences are good or bad. Psychologically flexible people aim to be mindful, conscious of their experience of the present moment. They have difficult thoughts, but they don’t ruminate on them. Similarly, they put challenges into context, maintaining a perspective and they stay focussed on their goals despite setbacks. They also stay in touch with “deeper values”, in spite of the challenges they face, maintaining a connection with those values, as they choose how to react to what life throws at them.

Taking a more nuanced approach

Daks and Rogge explored psychological flexibility within the context of the family, but their findings are relevant to any situation in which a group of people have to get on together – with some of them taking the lead. Daks and Rogge discovered for instance, that where family members weren’t conscious of their current situations or weren’t “present in the moment,” as practitioners of mindfulness describe it, family bonds were weaker. The same is true, they discovered when family members are inflexible in their approach to a situation, adhering to self-imposed rigid rules.

For example, a parent without psychological flexibility “might have a more difficult time responding to their children’s misbehaviour in sensitive, compassionate and responsive ways.” The same is true of romantic relationships, Daks and Rogge discovered. It should be noted that the causation is not completely clear here – after all, it might be that persistent bad behaviour by a child causes parental inflexibility. However, given the evidence of the benefits of adopting a psychologically flexible mentality and being more self-aware, it’s certainly worthwhile exploring this way of working in teams.

As we say in Be Bulletproof: How to achieve success in tough times at work: “The more aware you are of your thoughts and feelings, the more you can influence them. And when we say aware, we mean ‘actively aware’. Most of us are driven by our thoughts and emotions, but we don’t take the time to pause, take a look at them and reflect on them.

A useful technique for you to employ is to take a moment and try to step out of your thoughts, in order to gain an ‘observer perspective’ on your thinking… Not only does this give you a calm spot in your mind, but the sense of calm also allows you to make better choices.”
The message is clear – if you want better relationships with others in the workplace, cultivate psychology flexibility.