Joyful Strains: Rethinking Workplace Diversity on Australia Day

Rethinking Diversity Australia Day

What does Australia Day mean to you?

In a land that is so rich with culture, there is no doubt this question will be met with a variety of answers that are as diverse as the residents living in this country.

In many ways, Australia Day is a perfect representation of change. As we all know that sometimes change can be for the better, and sometimes it can be for the worse. One thing is certain about change, though; it is almost always inevitable. For better or for worse, we are here today because of our propensity for change as a nation.

In recent times, Australia Day has been a focal point for conversations around diversity and the Australian identity. Whether it’s about changing the date, or who should be represented on a billboard, discourse about the ever-changing nature of how we define diversity and how we define our national identity often go hand-in-hand. As our relationship with Australia Day continues to evolve, so must our relationship with how we think about diversity, particularly in the workplace.

Diversity in the workplace: Looking beneath the surface

A staple part of Australia Day for many has been the iconic BBQ with mates. Every year friends and family try to host a better event than the last year- more friends, more food, more ice and louder music. Years of competition have identified the element of any successful Australia day gathering- variety. The best BBQ has a variety of food (steak, sausages, lamb, tofu, veggie skewers), sides, a variety of drinks (local beer, wine, soft drinks, water) and a variety of friends, colleagues and family present. An essential ingredient in every good Australia Day celebration is diversity- accepting and celebrating it.

Similarly, an integral part of any Australian workplace is diversity. When people talk about workplace diversity, they often talk about what is most obvious: aspects such as race, ethnic background, age, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. While it is very important for workplaces to embrace people of different backgrounds and demographics, there is another level that tends to be overlooked: Internal Diversity – or what psychologists call Cognitive Diversity.

Cognitive Diversity: It’s what’s on the inside that counts

Instead of focussing on these obvious, visible differences, Cognitive Diversity focuses on the way our minds work: the way we think, the way we learn, the way we perceive things, the way we act, the way we communicate with others, the way we solve problems, etc. – the stuff on the “inside”. According to psychological research(1) in team performance, it’s this deeper level of diversity that influences how well a group of people work together(2).

How exactly does Cognitive Diversity affect the way people work together?

Cognitive Diversity drives creativity and innovation

Studies have found(3) that cognitive diversity boosts creativity in teams. This is because we tend to be mentally stimulated when we are exposed to different perspectives and ideas, which will lead us to generate more innovative ideas as a group. Ever wondered why some brainstorming activities feel more productive than others? Perhaps you should start looking into the internal diversity of your team.

Cognitive Diversity helps us make better decisions

Research(4) suggests that cognitively diverse groups can make better and more strategic decisions. This is because when you put together a group of people with different thinking styles, values, perspectives, knowledge, and skills, you create a group which can analyse problems from different and diverse angles and produce a wide range of possible solutions. Differing perspectives in a group are likely to empower people to challenge each other’s suggestions, consider alternative viewpoints, and reflect on their own ideas- all of which results in better organisational outcomes.

Cognitive Diversity boosts collective intelligence

People who approach tasks differently and have different skills and experiences can enhance the collective intelligence of the group.  Interestingly, in order to boost the collective intelligence of a group, it appears a reasonable balance must be achieved with regard to the degree of cognitive diversity in the group.  Recent research(5) suggests that too much similarity among members may limit the range of approaches the group can apply to a task. Likewise, too much difference among members can lead to communication breakdowns and a lack of empathy for others in the group.  It appears striking the balance of not too much and not too little diversity ultimately leads to the best performance.

Changing the diversity discussion

Australia Day is a good example of our evolving awareness and perception of diversity and its place in Australian culture. Over time, people have become more aware of diversity, and the challenge and value it brings to Australia and Australian workplaces. During this debate, it is important to consider diversity not just at the obvious level of race, gender and ethnic background, but also the internal aspects such as thinking styles, problem-solving strategies, interpersonal relationships, communication styles, values and motivation factors. Internal diversity isn’t the whole story, but it is a chapter.

By expanding the diversity discussion in the workplace to include internal and external, surface and cognitive, obvious and hidden elements, it is hoped that the awareness and understanding gained there, will allow for a greater discussion of diversity in Australian society.

Given the change in understanding of diversity in Australia, it is time to ask how we can leverage this diversity to develop and grow Australian workplaces and society.


  1. Mitchell, R., Boyle, B., O’Brien, R., Malik, A., Tian, K., Parker, V., … & Chiang, V. (2017). Balancing cognitive diversity and mutual understanding in multidisciplinary teams. 42-52.

  2. Mitchell, R., Parker, V., Giles, M., & White, N. (2010). Review: toward realising the potential of diversity in the composition of interprofessional health care teams: an examination of the cognitive and psychosocial dynamics of interprofessional collaboration. (1), 3-26.

  3. Wang, X. H. F., Kim, T. Y., & Lee, D. R. (2016). Cognitive diversity and team creativity: Effects of team intrinsic motivation and transformational leadership. (9), 3231-3239.

  4. De Dreu, C. K., & West, M. A. (2001). Minority dissent and team innovation: the importance of participation in decision making. (6), 1191.

  5. Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation.

  6. Aggarwal, I., Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., & Malone, T. W. (2015, May). Cognitive diversity, collective intelligence, and learning in teams. Paper presented at the, Santa Clara, CA.

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