How Can a Coaching Culture Support Cognitive Diversity?

Director of Coaching Zoe Lewis recently attended Matthew Syed’s webinar on Cognitive Diversity: Why it’s crucial and how to achieve it with Frazer Jones. In this blog, she reflects on the webinar and offers insight into how a coaching culture can support cognitive diversity.

Cognitive Diversity: Why It’s Crucial and How To Achieve It With Frazer Jones

Matthew began the webinar by highlighting the importance of a growth mindset (Carole Dweck) and explaining how a fixed mindset damaged Microsoft. Upon evolving a culture of being known for having “the smartest people in the room”, they then realised that this was causing challenges because it wasn’t the done thing to admit weaknesses or identify unknown areas.

Microsoft had work to do to evolve a culture in which people could speak freely without judgement and have unusual ideas that hadn’t been thought of before that could be aired, listened to, and reviewed in a non-judgemental manner.

Matthew also referred to the importance of psychological safety – this refers to the capacity to speak openly about thoughts, feelings, and ideas without fear of retribution or judgement.

Imagine in an environment where you need to be like the others, as in the Microsoft example:

  • Will your ideas match up to those of the smartest people in the room?

  • If you expose your true thoughts, how safe are you?

  • Can you safely challenge other people's thoughts in this environment?

Matthew shared how when we talk about diversity, we often think of the areas we hear most about, for example, race, sex, disability, gender assignments, sexual orientation, and so forth. He emphasised those are paramount, as is another type of diversity; cognitive.

Cognitive Diversity

Cognitive diversity refers to the inclusion of people who have unique ways of thinking and processing information. Previously, different thinking has led to people being labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘weird’,odd’, and even ‘challenging’. And yet, we are leading complex organisations with complex challenges in a complex world. There is so much need in the workplace to evolve and include cognitively diverse talent!

Consider what happens when we gather a room full of white, 50-year-old males who are Oxbridge educated and invite them to think deeply about solving an organisational challenge.

Studies have shown that unconscious bias is so strong that they have blind spots and limitations in their thinking because they have similar diverse demographics. The same can be said for the non-neuro-diverse organisations; they think in the same way. It’s time to tap into the unknown potential of our neuro-diverse colleagues; inclusion practices are thankfully starting to recognise all people’s potential.

So How Can a Coaching Culture Support Cognitive Diversity?

In the UK Foreign and Commonwealth’s Office’s coaching strategy, they share:

“Any coaching which benefits the individual performance will benefit the organisation. But we get a more direct benefit if we pick priority strategic goals and use coaching techniques around them to push forward or consolidate progress.” (Hawkins, 2012)

In the strategic plan, they identify where coaching can make a significant difference, and one of those areas is:

“Coaching for groups who are underrepresented in the department to support the department’s diversity agenda.”

Linking this with the work of Carol Wilson (2011), "Developing a coaching culture", she cites three underlying principles of a coaching culture:

  1. Responsibility. The more a manager takes responsibility in the workplace, the less that manager’s reports will take upon themselves. People are naturally creative, enjoy contributing, and like to have a measure of control of their workload. These instincts will be curbed by managers who bully, criticise, humiliate, or micro-manage their staff. However, being left alone without any positive feedback or suggestions for improvement does not encourage people to take responsibility either. This is where the other two elements come in.

  2. Self-belief. People’s self-belief can be boosted by praise from their bosses and peers, and outside recognition is not all that is needed. Think of a child learning to walk; it is encouraged by praise from the parents, but the key aspect is that the child is allowed to learn by falling.

  3. Blame free. Research shows that human beings learn through making mistakes, so people must be allowed to make their own individual progress through trial and error, from the CEO to the most junior recruit. People need the space to experiment, plus a measure of support, some suggestions, good role models, clear guidelines of what is expected of them and appropriate training for the job.

So, we can see that the many needs of an inclusive organisation and those provided by a coaching culture have significant overlap.

Additionally, Professor David Clutterbuck, David Megginson, (2006), "Creating a coaching culture”, has found that where organisations demonstrate an embedded coaching culture, the following behaviours are observed:

  • Knowledge sharing, upward, downward, and between peers, is a way of life

  • Coaching is widely used to develop a high-performing organisation

  • Coaching integrates individual dreams and shared organisational vision

  • Learning agendas and aspirations are widely shared throughout the organisation

  • Autonomy and co-operation equally valued in widespread coaching between divisions and functions

  • Organisational blind spots and weaknesses are addressed in coaching relationships

  • Coaching is used to manage projects and a wide range of meetings

  • Coachees take responsibility for their own performance accountability in a no-blame way

To Summarise

In summary, an organisation that opens itself and its colleagues to a coaching culture bring many benefits for unleashing the potential of talented individuals. For neuro-diverse talent, this means a safe space to be wholly themselves and be valued for what they bring.

To change an organisation’s thinking to evolve new and unthought-of solutions to challenges. To be an employer of choice, an organisation where people want to work; inclusive, evolving and ultimately making a difference to the organisation through its people’s purpose.

Many of our coaches work with teams and individuals to help them evolve a coaching culture and work on bespoke one-to-one coaching relationships to evolve neuro-diverse talent. Indeed, one of our coaches is LinkedIn Top Voice Carol Stewart, author of Quietly Visible and known for her work on unleashing typically quiet leaders.

How Do We Know if Coaching Is for Our Organisation?


The Leadership Coaches offer complimentary consultations to learn more about your organisation, its objectives, and how coaching can help evolve its strategic objectives.

How can we be sure a coach can work with one of our talented individuals?

We always suggest your coachees and our coaches have a complimentary chemistry call. In the call, they establish if there is the right chemistry for a successful coaching partnership.

Curious to learn more about how coaching can support our cognitive diversity strategy?

Give us a call on 0800 345 7727 or email zoe@theleadershipcoaches.co.uk to find out more.

In the meantime, take a look at our team of coaches here.