Cognitive Diversity #1: What Is It, and Why Do We Need It at The Very Top of Our Organisations?

When we think of large corporate conglomerates, we often imagine a large boardroom in a very tall, glass-lined building somewhere in a bustling city centre, filled with men in suits. In that boardroom, a flurry of activity greets us – with ideas presented on large screens whilst a crossfire of arguments, counter-arguments, suggestions, tweaks and take-downs ricochet around all four corners of the room. This is how bad ideas are shot down early, and how good ideas become great ones. The nominal leader in the room directs the conversation and lands on decisions, and actions are made and measured. This is how stuff gets done in big corporations.

The unfortunate reality is that this doesn’t describe a collaborative, inclusive, engaging environment where differences are leveraged to their fullest.

Imagine instead a group of people who think differently to each other, due to neurological and / or experiential, educational or functional differences, and who approach problems in different ways.  They are experts in their fields and have vast experience, often with a difference in values, worldviews, beliefs and demographic or socio-economic backgrounds. They respectfully explore each other’s viewpoints and constructively question each others’ assertions and thought processes with curiosity, care and courage within an environment that promotes psychological safety and relatedness.  They bring appropriate people in to the conversation at the right time, based on what value they can add. Solutions are developed and outcomes are achieved.

This is inclusive cognitive diversity.  And it is proven to add more value and reduce threats to businesses.

Use Your Brain for Inclusive Cognitive Diversity
Figure 1 - Cognitive diversity allows teams to tap into broader thought processes

I grew up in a mining town in Queensland in Australia and have worked in and around the mining industry for more than two decades.  Mining has a reputation for being insular and having high barriers to entry for individuals different to the industry norms. For most senior management teams within the mining industry, particularly for companies based in so-called Western countries, these norms are usually white, middle- to later-aged, male, and highly (over) technical with operational STEM backgrounds specific to the mining sector, often within specific commodities and geographies; they must also conform to the industry’s accepted ways of working, communicating, behaving and solving problems. This one-sided modus operandi starkly contrasts with the respectful development of solutions outlined above.  

Although the industry has made progress in improving physical safety within operational environments, psychological safety is not prioritised and physical safety is still a cause for concern around mining environments.  This has been highlighted by the recent report that Rio Tinto, rather bravely I believe, published; Report into Workplace Culture at Rio Tinto. This admits bullying, sexual harassment and racism running rife within one of the world’s biggest mining companies, and for the mining industry surely this is only the tip of the iceberg. It has been proven that without a culture of psychological safety and relatedness, diversity and inclusion can’t flourish and it is an easy spiral into bullying, sexual harassment, racism, homophobia and other damaging prejudicial behaviours.

Most of the industry still hasn’t come to terms with the idea that this needs a correction and that active interventions need to be made for the industry, and the world which relies on mined minerals, metals and materials. I believe that more cognitive diversity, or diversity of thought, within senior management teams within the mining industry would create a change in this area and improve performance and innovation; resulting in more created and captured value.  As Reynolds and Lewis (2017) said, “teams solve problems faster when they’re more cognitively diverse.”

I believe that there is an enormous, untapped potential and opportunity for cognitive diversity within senior management teams to add value to mining at the strategic level and from the initiation stages of asset development. Individuals from diverse backgrounds need to be more highly valued and included within the industry for mining to be able to adapt to disruption in a world that is changing at an ever-increasing rate. Cognitive diversity, in this instance, could contribute towards producing a company that is more agile, creative and robust in their approach towards day to day operations.

Over the years, I’ve become an expert in developing execution strategies for major and mega-investments in mining and infrastructure.  I believe that the approaches that are currently standard within these industries focus too much on the technical and not enough on the human, people-centric requirements for execution strategies to fully develop. I believe this can be one of the true differentiators for the success, or failure, of major- and mega-investments.  The status quo needs to change.  Outcomes should not be measured in just dollars and cents although also from a wider sustainability and societal perspective, which will ultimately determine a mining company’s ability to gain and retain their social licence to operate, which is critical in the modern age and becoming ever more of prominence as time rolls on.

In 2021, I completed a Master in Science in Business and Strategic Leadership at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. My thesis, which later became the groundwork concept for Strategist Solutions, reinforced my belief and experience that diversity and inclusion (D&I) is a key component of any successful Execution Strategy, with other components demonstrated in Figure 2 below, and that senior management teams would benefit from holistic exemplars, toolkits and frameworks to help them develop and manage appropriate cognitive diversity to improve innovation and decision-making; ultimately improving business outcomes and profitability whilst helping mining companies gain and retain their social licence to operate.

Figure 2 - Components for a successful Execution Strategy

The mining sector has been largely reactive to changing macro global dynamics regarding disruptive sustainability, technology, legislation, and stakeholder requirements.  The industry has operated with a degree of insularity from other industries and has not been proactive in meeting demographic diversity requirements. Mining operations are instead reactive to social equality or equity movements and legislation, many a time implementing too little too late, or not at all, in terms of cognitive diversity. 

Mining has had a poor Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and discrimination track record.  A 2015 study by Renders argues that the mining industry fosters a culture that discourages whistleblowing, and that “..workplace experts say that as long as this silence prevails, mining companies can pretend like nothing is wrong”. This has been reinforced by the Rio Tinto report referenced earlier. Meanwhile, elsewhere in many large scale industries, there is an increasing interest in senior management diversity; it has been found to improve executive creativity and decision-making, leading to better organisational outcomes.

My experience in the field

For more than two decades, I have been working in large organisations within the mining and infrastructure sectors delivering major and mega projects in senior roles. This has taken me all over the world and thrust me into all kinds of different leadership roles. In the process, I dealt with a myriad of interesting, and at times challenging, people. I have always believed that investing in people and building relationships is the most important way to achieve business success. This is reinforced by my belief in the power of humanity and that it has long been thought that the more high technology surrounds us, the more the need for human touch (Naisbitt, 1982).

Throughout my years of employment within the mining and infrastructure industries, I was – and continue to be – astounded by the lack of empathy and humanity demonstrated by the vast majority of the senior leaders within these industries.  In general, these industries seem to reward many low EQ, autocratic, even bullying and narcissistic leaders with remuneration and advancement opportunities, despite a lack of attention to the duty of care they should have for their employees and broader stakeholders.  

Often these same leaders even communicate commitments to improving values and behaviours although when it comes down to demonstrating their commitment to these through their actions, these leaders are sadly lacking. I am happy to report that over the years I’ve seen an improvement in the emphasis on physical safety within these industries – however, as discussed earlier the emphasis on improving psychological, or even emotional, safety has, for the most part, been negligent.

I think there is a time and a place for directive, autocratic leadership, particularly in times of crisis or when safety of people or the environment is at risk. In these instances, this style of leadership may produce a clear, concise and decisive way forward, whilst also placing the majority of deciding power on a single individual or chain of command – and thus all the responsibilities and blame that may accompany that role. However, this behaviour should not be the norm and leaders who create crisis to be directive should not be allowed to prosper.  Instead, there needs to be more members of senior management teams who care about employees and other internal and external stakeholders that they exert influence over.  We need more emotional intelligence to be employed by senior management within organisations and for collaborative, trusting and inclusive behaviour to be actively and authentically modelled.  This needs to be a fundamental component of the strategic makeup of the organisation, with real top-down buy-in.  When this methodology is employed, a more rounded operating process occurs and individuals will bring their whole selves to the workplace and can contribute fully, thus adding as much overall value as possible.

When I first began researching this topic for my Masters Thesis, I had just left an executive role at a mid-tier mining company. Although I had been immensely successful in developing and delivering investments to drive value for the company and galvanising stakeholders around the execution strategies, I’d been unable to sufficiently realign some of the organisational values and behaviours, mainly within the senior executive team.  Ultimately, I ended up leaving due mainly to a cultural misalignment and clashing leadership styles that I felt was causing confusion within the organisation and made me feel that I was living against my own values.  I think, subconsciously, that I wanted to use the process of researching and writing my thesis to better understand why this role hadn’t worked out as well as I had hoped.  Since I have spent most of my career working in and around the mining industry, and because mining “ one of the main activities for the world economy and creating social welfare” (Amirshenava and Osanloo, 2019), I decided to focus on improving the mining industry.  I saw a great deal of scope in this for a people-centric topic to be able to change the mining industry.

My initial research on the topic quickly led me to several realisations. I came across a lot of research and literature on “Equality”, which was mainly focused on legislative and legal aspects of social justice and mainly around ensuring that demographically diverse characteristics of individuals were not being used to discriminate against them.  

There was less research on “Diversity”, and it was mainly focused on demographic characteristics like age, race, gender etc rather than cognitive diversity, which is sometimes referred to as neurodiversity or diversity of thought.  Cognitive diversity is the demonstration of unique and different viewpoints and of the ability to be able to problem-solve in different ways.  This may be a result of many influencing factors including, although not limited to, an individual’s social background, education, employment experience, parental status etc.  There was comparatively also little research on “Inclusion”.

I am a believer that the world needs to do more to drive social equality although there is a huge amount of complexity around historic and social factors for how humanity has made it to where we are and what we need to do to improve this.  As discussed earlier, there is already a lot of research on equality, so I decided to go back to my original problem.  How would I be able to effect behavioural and cultural change within the mining industry so that there was some sustainable shift in how we include diverse people into the industry?  

Mining is facing some huge disruptive changes around technology, sustainability, legislation, stakeholder expectations and the ability to retain the social licence to operate.  I don’t think the industry is doing a great job at responding to this change and the leadership is stale.  How can the leadership approach in mining change to accommodate this?  How do we attract and retain the right people within senior management teams in mining to enact change throughout organisations and the wider industry?  

I decided to dig further into the proven value improvements that demographic diversity in senior management teams results in, and the academic research suggested that this was because demographic diversity increases creativity, innovation, performance and ultimately profitability for businesses.  I pondered this and thought that maybe it wasn’t just that the teams were demographically diverse that drove better performance; maybe there was a correlating effect that perhaps demographic diversity also often inherently brought cognitive diversity to teams, and that it was this diversity of thought, or the different way individuals can approach and solve problems, that was also contributing to the success of these organisations that had diverse senior management teams.  Perhaps these successful senior management teams also operated in a way where individuals’ voices were heard, acknowledged and respected.  To say it another way; perhaps demographic diversity contributed to cognitive diversity and vice versa, and that when these two factors are combined within an inclusive corporate culture, additional value is created.

I first needed to define what cognitive diversity meant and be able to present it in a way that would make it easy for stakeholders to understand.  I came across a useful diagram from Senichev (2013), and adapted it slightly to develop the diagram below.  It shows characteristics that shape a human’s personality, including; 

– Internal Dimensions that are Demographic characteristics, and 

– External and Organisational characteristics that are influential for Cognitive Diversity.

As can be seen below, there is a crossover between Equality and Diversity, since many diversity characteristics, both demographic and cognitive, are legislatively and legally protected.

Figure 3 - Proposed updates to Senichev (2013) diversity wheel based on interviews and literature review

There is surprisingly little academic, peer-reviewed literature on the benefits of cognitive diversity and inclusion, and almost none for this topic in the mining industry.  There’s also very little research on the value of cognitive diversity in senior management teams, within or outside the mining industry.  There are some thought pieces by some of the larger consultancies that can be found on the internet, although a number of these have been criticised by academics who feel that they are being used for marketing purposes to grow their businesses and that they focus too heavily on trying to quantify value from diversity; they don’t highlight the fact that we should be promoting diversity because it is simply the right thing to do in terms of the work required to get to social equality. 

All in all, one may consider the basis of this research to be a very valid one, exploring a void of developing and managing cognitive diversity in the top management of some of the world’s most influential mining companies to find a way of implementing a better modus operandi that will benefit the senior management team, the company, it’s employees, the environment and all key stakeholders that may be involved in one way or another.

Please read Part 2 of this articleThe Current State of Cognitive Diversity in Mining, also on this site.

Strategist Solutions are working with industry partners to establish a framework, methodology and software tool to make it easier for clients to be able to develop creative, innovative and robust execution strategies that leverage value from cognitive diversity. If you’d like to discuss this topic further, or find out how we can help bring more cognitive diversity and best-practise management standards to your company or organisation, get in touch with us now!

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Amirshenava, S. and Osanloo, M. (2019) “A hybrid semi-quantitative approach for impact assessment of mining activities on sustainable development indexes,” Journal of Cleaner Production, 218, pp. 823–834.

Nasibitt, J. (1982) “Megatrends, Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives,” New York: Warner Books.

Renders, A. (2015) “Mining Industry Blind to Its Homophobic Culture.,” Corporate Knights Magazine, 14(2) Corporate Knights Inc., pp. 18–19.

Reynolds, A. and Lewis, D. (2017) “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse.,” Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, Harvard Business School Publication Corp., pp. 2–6.

Rio Tinto (2022) Report into Workplace Culture at Rio Tinto. Available at: (Accessed: February 10, 2022).

Senichev, V. (2013) “Organizační týmy: Propojení týmové diverzity, výkonnosti a spokojenosti.,” Organizational Teams: Linking Team Diversity, Performance and Satisfaction., 7(17), pp. 139–148.


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