Research shows that cognitive versatility boosts teams and results in companies

Study analyzed more than 132 teams with 452 participants in total.
10 January 2024
Research shows that cognitive versatility boosts teams and results in companies

“There is an increasing tendency to talk about diversity. Companies are increasingly adhering to affirmative action, while the number of studies in this area is also growing. However, the job market and academia may be ignoring a fundamental factor for teamwork.” This statement by researcher Ishani Aggarwal from the Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration (FGV EBAPE) draws attention to the potential that “people with versatile cognitive skills” can have to improve team building and generate better results for different organizations.

The researcher carried out two studies, demonstrating how these individuals with versatile cognition are able to connect the other members of a team and direct them toward a certain goal. “These people are able to understand different cognitive, social and other perspectives, which can increase collaboration within a team, creating ‘bridges’ between diverse individuals,” explains Aggarwal. “In addition to ensuring diversity within a team, it is necessary to promote the appropriate mechanisms so that this diversity is used to its full potential.”

She reiterates that these cognitively versatile individuals, such as multicultural people, with knowledge of different realities beyond their own, are able to achieve this because they are able to deal with different styles of thinking. To prove this hypothesis, the researcher carried out two experimental studies involving a total of 452 participants from 132 teams.

Different cognitions in collaborative work

“The first study was carried out with MBA students in the United States. We ran a questionnaire during the course to obtain data on how individuals process different information, whether visually, verbally, etc.,” the researcher says. She worked on various studies that seek to understand how individuality works within a group.

The teams, made up of five members, took part in Change Pro, a realistic computerized tool designed to help managers increase their ability to implement change by offering them a challenge to solve. In this activity, they had to analyze their organization’s social networks, both formal and informal. The aim was to create a powerful network, made up of influential people, capable of supporting the implementation of a quality program called Sigma Six, which is used in companies to improve the quality of processes, identify and correct problems, and reduce variations in results.

While building this network of supporters, the teams aimed to get the support they needed to successfully implement the program within the organization, involving techniques for convincing, training and engaging employees. “The individuals who demonstrated that they were multicultural and had different perspectives were precisely those who were able to solve the challenge most quickly and with the best results. They had better relationships within the group, which translated into positive team performance,” Aggarwal said.

The researcher emphasizes that this study focused on people’s cognitive individuality rather than their intelligence. “We didn’t analyze the amount of knowledge these individuals had, but rather their ability to process this information,” she says.

According to Aggarwal, another important aspect concerns diversity among the participants. “In order to ascertain the possibility of generating connections from different perspectives, among the 206 participants who took part in this stage, 30% were women, 6.4% were black, 37.7% were Asian, 44.2% white, 7.8% Latino and 3.4% from other ethnic groups,” she says.

Greater capacity to resolve conflicts

Aggarwal points out that when it comes to studies in this area, it is advisable to carry out more than one experimental test in order to guarantee the validity of the results. For this reason, the researcher ran an experimental study with undergraduate students at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. In this phase, random groups of three people were formed and asked to develop a certain project.

“During the execution of this project, the students were recorded so that we could later analyze the dynamics between them using videos and audio. In measuring the behavior of the individuals, our interest was to see how different conflicts occur and how the integration process takes place in practice,” Aggarwal says.

In this study, the teams worked on an exercise to simulate organizational decision making, in which a fictitious company called A Farm E-Z, which manufactures agricultural equipment, had recently launched a new grinder fan, but which was unsuccessful. The participants’ task was to figure out how to reverse the losses caused by this new product in the short term and how to guarantee profits in the long term.

To do this, they received various emails containing customer complaints, sales data, feedback from distributors and repair problems. “These complaints were presented in different ways, using written words, graphics and images to cater to the different ways people learn and think,” the researcher adds.

According to Aggarwal, once again the teams that had cognitively versatile individuals were able to resolve these conflicts more effectively and promote better integration within these teams. “I think it was very interesting to carry out this second study, because we wanted to understand how the processes actually take place. It was possible to analyze everything from the formation of a team to the processes for achieving a certain result.”

Impact on organizations

Aggarwal points out that at first the results of this research, titled The Benefits of Cognitive Style Versatility for Collaborative Work, may sound intuitive, but it is very important to analyze how these processes occur in practice, as companies don’t always give due value to these “cognitively versatile” people in selection processes. “We recommend that managers pay more attention to these individuals as they can help a lot with team performance,” she says.

The researcher reiterates that the presence of cognitively versatile individuals facilitates the accomplishment of tasks and guarantees more effective processing of information, not only in a process, but also in the team itself. According to Aggarwal, they are also able to reduce conflicts in different activities and increase the social integration of the team, which ultimately promotes group performance and results for the respective organization.

“As incredible as diversity is within a team, often these people who represent diversity are unable to reach their full potential, precisely because they are unable to express themselves or communicate within a team. This study found that people with cognitive versatility are able to remedy this problem and lead teams to achieve better results,” she says.

See the full study. 

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