Matthew Syed on cognitive diversity: Why it’s the most important thing for you and your business

Author Nick Croucher
July 18, 2022

The most successful and innovative businesses are focused on cognitive diversity at the C-suite level. These businesses see cognitive diversity not just as an organisational attribute that is important in political and social terms, but as a cutting-edge performance asset – perhaps the most important performance asset.

But there are some companies where Chief Executives haven’t quite grasped why this matters and haven’t made some of the conceptual breakthroughs that are key to harnessing cognitive diversity.

Doing so is crucially important and, according to author, journalist and broadcaster Matthew Syed “getting cognitive diversity right is probably the most important thing for organisations in the coming 25 years, because the world is changing fast. Having different lenses on multi-dimensional problems is a hugely important way to come up with winning strategies, great predictions, and excellent innovations.”

In a webinar attended by over 2,000 HR professionals across the world, Nick Croucher spoke to Matthew about cognitive diversity, and why it’s crucial. In this fascinating conversation, we covered:

  • Growth mindset versus fixed mindset
  • Why talent isn’t enough to drive performance
  • Echo chambers and why they are dangerous
  • How to influence C-suite leaders to buy into the benefits of cognitive diversity
  • How to factor in cognitive diversity into the recruitment process

Here, we shared what we learned from and discussed with Matthew.

Growth mindset versus fixed mindset

Where does hyper performance come from?

You can take almost any group of people and give them a questionnaire to probe the way they think about success.

And, broadly speaking, you get two categories of answer.

The fixed mindset

On one side of the spectrum, what’s sometimes called the fixed mindset, people are very preoccupied with talent.

Do we have the right predisposition, the right kind of brain, the right kind of expertise?

Their mindset is that, if you want to have a successful team or business, you want to hire the most talented people. Of course, there’s an important element of truth in that. But it’s not the whole story.

The growth mindset

On the other side of the spectrum, what’s sometimes called the growth mindset, people acknowledge that talent is a factor. But the crucial difference is that they also acknowledge that in the complex, rapidly changing world we live in, talent alone isn’t enough.

It’s what we do individually and collectively with our talents that drives long-term success.

According to randomised control trials and rigorous social science, people in a growth mindset – in almost every context – are best at constant self-evaluation. Better at reaching out to diverse voices. To plug the inevitable gaps in any one person’s knowledge.

And people in a growth mindset are also better learners, and learn, of course, from their successes.

There are very rich learning opportunities from those occasions which go less than perfectly – when there are opportunities to improve.

“Understanding the power of a growth mindset culture has huge implications for our organisations” says Matthew.

Know-it-alls versus learn-it-alls

A fixed mindset can create a business of ‘know-it-alls’ where there is no innovation.

Matthew uses the example of Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft from 2014 – date. And who has taken the market cap of Microsoft from $300 billion to more than $2 trillion.

“Nadella’s number one objective was to change the culture from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Microsoft had had a lot of historic success, but there’s a risk with success that we become complacent. Nadella reported said that Microsoft had become an organisation of ‘know-it-alls’.  Everyone wanted to look like the smartest person in the room.

Now, if you want to look like the smartest person in the room what don’t you want to hear about?

Well, presumably you don’t want to hear about the deficiencies in the product line, because, instead of seeing that as an opportunity to address the deficiency and improve the product, you see that is the threat to your self-image as the master designer who created that product.

When you get negative customer feedback, there’s an unconscious tendency to blame the customer – instead of seeing that as an opportunity.”

In a fixed mindset people in a position of senior leadership get defensive when a great idea emerges from a brain other than their own.

This shuts down the constructive descent that is so important for coming up with the best ideas.

“When you have a critical mass of people, even talented people in a fixed mindset, it suppresses the flow of information, creativity, and innovation that is so important for staying ahead of the curve anticipating future disruptions, shaping them collectively so that we can serve our customers on a more effective way.”

But, when you are a learn-it-all, you can be an expert and still want to learn more.

You can still have that curiosity. That open mind that allows you to see where the deficiencies are, because nobody is perfect. And to improve those deficiencies.

You love it when ideas emerge from other brains. Because that’s how we collectively come up with the best ideas of all. You want to create a psychologically safe environment for the flow and the dynamic interplay of those ideas.

“It seems to me that that when you map Nadella’s […] explanation for this extraordinary transformation to the randomised control trial evidence there is the compelling case.

I want to suggest it is a cutting-edge asset that sits at the absolute heart of those organisations that are going to take advantage and thrive in this post-pandemic age.”

The link between growth mindset and cognitive diversity

You may have already noticed there’s an intimate link between a great mindset culture, and one that harnesses the power of diversity.

But first, what is cognitive diversity?

We often talk about diversity in the world today through the prism of demography; differences in race, gender, social class, religious background and more. Which is very important.

Cognitive diversity” says Matthew, “is defined as differences in insight, perspective, information, and the heuristics that we deploy consciously or otherwise, to make sense of the world around us and to filter information.

Now, would you agree with me that there’s often a very intimate link between demographic and cognitive diversity, because our demographic differences inform how we experience the world, and the kind of formative experiences that we’ve had, and so on, and so forth?”

Cognitively diverse teams are one thousand times more productive than teams that are not cognitively diverse

“Imagine putting together a team to come up with an advertising campaign to connect with a broad group of consumers. I hope it kind of goes without saying that if everyone in that advertising team comes from the very same demographic background, they’re going to be way too narrow in coming up with a really brilliant campaign.

So hypothetically if you imagine all of them a white, middle-aged, middle-class, male, private school educated, Oxbridge graduates. I want to say loud and clear that there’s obviously nothing wrong with that background. People from that background have a massive amount to contribute to any team.

But if everyone in the team is from that background, they’re going to lack the tacit knowledge to connect that campaign with those consumers whose lives are very different from their own.”

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he was giving a speech about how to combat anti-social behaviour. He proposed empowering police officers to take those who are engaged in anti-social behaviour, take them to a cash point, require that they withdraw a £100 and issue an on the spot fine.

Journalists – the majority of whom were upper middle class – thought the policy was brilliant.

It took somebody from a different social class to show that this policy was flawed. Because, of course, a high proportion of those who would be targeted at that time wouldn’t have bank accounts and perhaps even if they did, may not have a £100 bank balance.

“In other words, conceptual flare detached from nuanced cultural understanding can lead an organization in precisely the wrong direction.”

How the CIA got it so wrong

The CIA hire brilliant individual analysts with great skills and with robust hiring methods. But historically there was a bias in the hiring, and very close to 95% of the CIA were White, West Coast, male, middle class, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, Americans.

“Nothing wrong with that background, [they have] a huge amount to contribute.” says Matthew. “But when you’re seeking to understand emerging threats in other parts of the world with different kinds of societies and trying to understand alienation, religious radicalisation and tribal allegiances – can you see that there was a gaping black hole in their analytical capacity?”

But there are some contexts where the link between demographic and cognitive diversity are less significant.

Imagine designing an aircraft engine. This is a complex, multi-dimensional problem.

You definitely want cognitive diversity; people with different experiences in material science, in aerodynamics, and so on.

“But I would submit to you that that doesn’t correlate onto demographic differences in quite the same way. I happen to be a mixed race.

The fact that I had a set of distinctive experiences growing up as a mixed-race boy in the 1980s gives me a lot of insights into a lot of different things, but not into designing an aircraft engine.

Maybe there will be longer term consequences of having somebody like me on the engineering team, because it signals to the next generation that somebody for my demographic background can thrive and flourish. I want to say that is important, but it’s also worth saying it’s not having a particularly big impact on the short-term engineering problem.

And the only reason I say that is because I truly believe that reducing diversity to a box ticking exercise based on demography alone misses a great deal of the power and subtlety cognitive diversity and I think that’s a profound strategic misjudgement.”

Group think and Gareth Southgate

This is one manifestation of what we call group think, and it’s very easy to happen in organisations of all kinds, and in all parts of the world.

“I sit on a group that advises Gareth Southgate (the men’s England football coach). It’s quite an eclectic advisory group. Also on the group is Lucy Giles, who helps to run the Sandhurst Military Training Academy; Baroness Sue Campbell, an expert on Olympics sports; David Brailsford, one of the top cycling coaches in the world; Manage Bidali, a British Asian founder of high-tech start-up companies; Sir Michael Barber, who was Tony Blair’s educational advisor.

What did people in football say about this advisory group? Most were horrified – ‘How dare these outsiders come in and tell us how to play football!’

‘Why isn’t Gareth Southgate advised like all previous English football managers by good old-fashioned English football men?’

The problem is, Southgate broadly already knows what they know, because they were socialised into the basic assumptions of English football.

And if you have a team full of these people, what you have there is not a collectively intelligent team. You have an echo chamber they’re agreeing all the time.”

When there’s an advisory team or a senior leadership team, or anyone trying to do something innovative, you need cognitive diversity.

The danger of echo chambers

If the team is not cognitively diverse it’s probably quite comfortable – they are more likely to agree, which probably means they get more and more confident about gravely flawed or potentially incomplete assumptions.

On the flipside, with a cognitively diverse team, ideas are offered up that are not known to the others in the group.

“This is divergent thinking. This is a cross-pollination of ideas. This is where true collective intelligence emerges”

A cognitively diverse team is 10 times more productive

If you have 10 people in a team and you ask them to come up with great ideas for the future of the business, and you want three or four great ideas to take to the marketplace, how many great ideas will you have in total?

It really depends.

Let’s say you’re good at hiring individuals who are creative and each one of these people comes up with a genuinely great idea.

But if these people think in the same way, they, for example have been socialised through the same processes, or perhaps all been to the same university – they are far more likely to come up with similar ideas.

So, in this scenario you only have one idea.

It just takes one person to come up with a different idea, and you have doubled the creative idea output.

But if each one of the 10 comes up with a different idea from one another, it’s up by almost a 1,000%.

“This, I think, is a critical insight, perhaps a simple one, but a critical one in HR. You can have two teams comprised of individuals of equal talent, measured in this case by creative idea out. But the diverse team is almost a 1,000% more creative.

Most of the important work we do now is in teams. If the meetings to come up with the kinds of strategies that confer a competitive advantage are taken in teams without diversity optimised, it’s basically impossible – in my submission to you – to come up with a great strategy.”

It’s certainly impossible to come up with great innovations and also, for those who might be interested coming up with accurate predictions (which are obviously very difficult to do), cognitive diversity is the most important attribute.

There’s very clear, robust science underpinning this. And this is where, I think, many of the most successful financial institutions are going now because almost any decision in finance – buying selling, holding stocks, estimating the oil price – hinge on empirical predictions. And at the moment, in my submission to you, the teams are under-optimised for cognitive diversity.”

A fixed mindset culture versus a growth mindset culture

If you’re in a fixed mindset, who do you want to surround yourself with? People who think just like you, because if people are telling you things you already know it corroborates your sense of self as a world leading expert.

A profound, unconscious tendency to surround oneself with the like-minded – to hire people who look and think like you, who studied under similar professors – creates a real sense, of comfort, and it completely obfuscates change innovation and growth.

Whereas people in a growth mindset – the learn-it-all mindset – who do they want to surround themselves with? They want to surround themselves with people who have perspectives that are both useful, but also different – a mutual challenge, a cross-pollination of ideas.

Moreover, can you see the intimate link between a growth, mindset culture, and psychological safety – which is empirically understood as a contributor to good team performance.

Because when there’s a psychologically safe environment people are saying what they truly think, rather than what they think the leader wants to hear. A fixed mindset leader wants to hear things that he or she already knows.

And so, people in a rigid hierarchy – slightly nervous of their leader – just circulate the old stale ideas. In a growth mindset culture, a leader wants to hear these different ideas so that you can challenge each other – that’s where you get the magic and people in the growth mindset.

They want to learn-it-all naturally, and organically begin to pivot towards harnessing the cognitive diversity that is so important.

“I want to suggest that in the growth mindset culture, you have an absolute responsibility to challenge somebody in your team in your organisation in the meeting, if you think their idea is wrong. A meeting should be like hypothesis testing – you come up with something, I look at the weaknesses, and together through our respectful disagreement we get to the best idea overall. It’s a positive sum environment.”

Cognitive diversity needs to be highly and specifically optimised

If we were advising not on football but on how to design a Hadron Collider, lots of cognitive diversity might be completely irrelevant.

This is why a cognitive diversity strategy is so important. It’s crucial to do an analysis of the kind of diversity you need for your organisation, whether that’s the CIA, Amazon or the local butchers.

“You need to ask – what is the diversity we need? Then you begin to get that growth mindset culture that is, I think, when you get the perfect storm and that deep synergy between growth, mindset and cognitive diversity emphasis in what I said earlier, I think is a mission, critical, organisational attribute of those institutions that are going to thrive in this coming age.”

How can we influence C-suite leaders to buy into the benefit of cognitive diversity?

Take a relay team. In that scenario, you’re going to want the fastest runners to be part of that team.

“When C-suite leaders and many others in an organisation hear we need diversity what many hear – ‘Oh, you want us to hire slower runners for the purposes of politically correct box ticking. You’re asking us to slow the organisation down and if I care about the mission of this organisation I don’t want to do.’

That destroys inclusivity. Instead of listening to these other voices, they’re patronised.

They’re kind of filtered out of the conversation.

It’s a disaster. But this idea about the importance of diversity only applies to a simple environment – like the relay team example.”

In a complex environment, you need cognitive diversity.

Because if you had people who are coming up with great ideas who are clones, they’re adding nothing to each other. They’re actually probably making the organisation worse and slowing it down.

It’s when you get diversity that you start to get deep in to complex activities and this is the point at which you can make that breakthrough with people like the C-suite that this is something that’s going to help you pursue the mission of this organisation more effectively. Suddenly everything changes – that’s why it matters not just socially and politically, but in straightforward performance terms.

How do you factor in seeking cognitive diversity into the recruitment process?

Nick Croucher “If you hire exclusively from people who have worked their career in your sector, they are a by-product of the environment and or the industry. It doesn’t add to a huge amount of cognitive diversity.

If instead you look at people who’ve got different backgrounds, different experiences and different environments you get a far richer team. The companies I’ve worked with who have adopted an approach like this have had a lot of success.”

Says Matthew, “One of the tools that we use with our clients is, we ask people, instead of saying what should we do next – take a step back and say, ‘Do we have the right array of voices in this group?’.

You can imagine that if in the senior leadership team in a retail business, everyone comes from the same sort of age group, it may well be that there’s a blind spot when it comes to understanding how young people are engaging with technology and what their aspirations might be. You see a lot of retailers now having shadow boards where young people have direct access to the decision makers to plug that particular blind spot.”

So, when you’re thinking about recruiting for your team, it’s extremely worthwhile to do this analysis and not be too prescriptive about the background of your new hire.

How can we attract cognitive diversity into our business?

Once you’ve done the analysis you can identify the blind spots. Then look at where the people are who could come in and offer that key insight, that will help you solve this problem.

It’s also important to look a where the biases in our recruiting that we need to challenge. Where do we need to place our adverts? Where do we need to start asking recruiters like Frazer Jones to go out and find the people who can, as it were, plug these deficiencies we have in the organisation?

How do we need to change our language, and how do we make our company more inclusive, so that people thrive?

Once you’ve done the analysis then you can start reaching out in a way that makes it effective.

“If I can leave you with one thought”, says Matthews, “it’s that this [analysis] is a great agenda for performance, it’s also a great agenda for innovation. But it’s a also great agenda for harnessing the insights and perspectives of people who can often be marginalised. And I think that’s a wonderful social objective too.”

We ended our discussion by asking our webinar audience, made up of over 2,000 HR professionals from around the world, a simple question:

Does your company have a cognitive diversity strategy?

The answer showed that there is still a lot to do in this space; 75% of the audience said no, 17% said they were working on one, and only 8% said they have one in place.

About Matthew Syed

Matthew Syed is an author and highly acclaimed speaker in the field of high performance. He has written six best-selling books on the subject of mindset and high performance – Bounce, Black Box Thinking, Rebel Ideas, The Greatest, and his celebrated children’s books, You Are Awesome and Dare To Be You – and has worked with many leading organisations to build a mindset of continuous improvement. He is also a multi-award-winning journalist for The Times and The Sunday Times and a regular contributor to television and radio. In his previous career, Matthew was the England table tennis number one for almost a decade.

In his most recent best seller – Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking – Matthew argues that individual intelligence is no longer enough to solve today’s complex problems; to truly succeed we must harness the power of ‘cognitive diversity’. Rebel Ideas uncovers the best-kept secrets of the world’s most successful teams, bringing insights from psychology, anthropology and data science, whilst drawing on a dazzling range of intriguing case-studies.

Matthew’s work explores a thought-provoking approach to high performance in the context of a complex and fast-changing world. By understanding the intimate connection between mindset and high performance, organisations can unlock untapped potential in individuals and teams, driving innovation and agility to secure a future-proofed environment. A TEDx video of Matthew speaking about growth mindset can be viewed on YouTube.

Matthew is also co-founder of Matthew Syed Consulting (MSC); the company has worked with an impressive portfolio of clients to build growth mindset cultures and drive higher performance in individuals, teams and organisations. Matthew Syed Consulting’s cutting-edge thought leadership programme and digital learning tools are becoming a catalyst for real and lasting change within business and the public sector.

Matthew also works very closely with the education sector to help improve mindsets in schools and young people. He is an active founding member of the charity Greenhouse Sports and an ambassador for the PiXL Educational Foundation.

To find out more about Matthew’s work, visit:

Would you like more insights?

If you’d like advice on hiring a cognitively diverse team, please get in touch with one of our consultants today.

We also regularly write content and host events on subjects like this, so please do regularly look at our resources (you may find What We What we learned speaking to Ellie Simmonds on Disability Inclusion particularly interesting) and events listings, and follow us on LinkedIn, to make sure you’re up to date with all of this content.

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