Conversational Capacity® and the “Diversity Bonus”

To think is to differ.
— Clarence Darrow


Diversity is even more important than many people realize. Research shows that more diverse teams outperform less diverse teams, especially in complex, unpredictable, adaptive situations. Diversity, therefore, should be viewed as an asset, as another form of intelligence.

But there’s a catch. To gain this “diversity bonus,” people and teams need the discipline to leverage their differences for learning. (It’s hard to learn from diverse perspectives when we’re avoiding, ignoring, downplaying, or disputing them.)

Building our conversational capacity is an actionable way to develop this discipline. To earn the diversity bonus, in other words, we need both diversity and the conversational capacity to put it to work.


There is a growing appreciation for, and an expanding conversation about, the importance of diversity. This is long overdue. Dr. Scott Page, a professor of complex systems at Michigan State University and the author of The Diversity Bonus, brings a rigorously analytic perspective to the conversation – a view that springs from his academic background in mathematics, economics, game theory, and complex systems.

His research on the value of diversity shows that it is an asset – a source of collective intelligence – that results in higher team performance, especially when dealing with hard problems. “The evidence of the benefits of cognitive diversity prove strong, bordering on overwhelming,” writes Page. Diverse teams are, practically speaking, smarter than less diverse teams, because they enjoy what Page calls a diversity bonus. “There is a bonus to be reaped in bottom-line performance when diverse groups function effectively together as teams in the highly charged, competitive, fast-changing work settings we face increasingly in today’s world – be it in business, or in scientific discovery, in classrooms or on the battlefield,” write Nancy Cantor and Earl Lewis in the Introduction to The Diversity Bonus. The diversity itself is like another team member – it generates an advantage more homogenous teams lack. As Page puts it, “One plus one can equal three, but only if the two ones are different.”

One plus one can equal three, but only if the two ones are different.
— Scott Page

Diversity is Diverse

When Page talks about diversity, he’s talking about cognitive diversity – differences in how we think, in how we make sense of the world, in our knowledge, values, and how we frame both problems and solutions. “It is the cognitive diversity of a team – measured by the lack of overlap in its members’ repertoires – that produces a diversity bonus.”

Identity diversity – our race, cultural background, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, political affiliations, etc. – is a powerful source of cognitive diversity. “Cognitive diversity is the difference in how we think. Identity diversity is a difference in who we are,” says Page. “It is cognitive diversity that needs to be leveraged for increased profits in business, innovative solutions in science, efficiency in policy making, and deeper discussion in our classrooms. Nevertheless, identity diversity can produce cognitive diversity, both directly, by engaging unique repertoires derived from particular experiences, and indirectly, as individuals with particular identities elicit novel ideas from others in a team.”

Margaret Neale, a professor of Organizations and Dispute Resolution at Stanford University, agrees: “People tend to think of diversity as simply demographic, a matter of color, gender, or age. However, groups can be disparate in many ways. Diversity is also based on informational differences, reflecting a person’s education and experience, as well as on values or goals that can influence what one perceives to be the mission of something as small as a single meeting or as large as a whole company.”

All this diversity can have a powerful impact on performance. Teams with a wide variety of cognitive tools are better at problem solving, they’re more innovative, they respond more effectively to uncertainty, and they have more evidence-based conversations. Their varying points of view help them detect and correct faulty assumptions, so they’re better at double-loop learning – the ability to shift our thinking to fit a new problem (rather than interpreting a new problem so it fits our old thinking). Page equates cognitive differences to a set of tools in a toolbox. The higher the diversity the greater the set of tools available for working on a problem.

It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.
— Maya Angelou


Diversity is even more important than many people realize, especially in certain circumstances. The diversity bonus is particularly pronounced, it turns out, when teams are facing complex problems and adaptive challenges.

“By complex we mean difficult to explain, engineer, predict,” explains Page. “Something that is between ordered and completely random, where it’s hard to figure out.” An adaptive challenge, on the other hand, is a problem for which there are no easy answers, no proven solutions for dealing with the issue, no clear protocols or ready processes, no experts we can call on to solve the problem for us. The challenge is adaptive precisely because we have no established routine. *

“If we look at collections of people who perform routine tasks, such as flipping burgers, we would not expect cognitive diversity to correlate with performance. Flipping burgers does not require much collective problem solving or prediction,” writes Page. But when you’re dealing with important, high-stakes problems that are multidimensional, uncertainty is high, and there will be tough trade-offs to make, “diversity is a form of ability.”

Why does this matter? Our world isn’t getting more simple and sluggish; it’s growing more complicated and dynamic. Because complex problems and adaptive challenges are coming at us from every direction – from public health, education, climate, and the economy, to global conflict, political strife, and technological innovation – building teams that can engage them effectively is growing in importance. High cognitive diversity is a vital part of creating such teams.


But, there’s a catch. Diversity alone doesn’t produce the bonus. As Page puts it, diversity “does not magically translate into benefits.” Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, agrees: “The benefits of diversity aren’t likely to accrue if we simply put together a team of diverse individuals and assign them a task. The environment in which they’re working should be inclusive – one in which all members feel valued and as if they have a voice.”

The diversity bonus, in other words, hinges on the ability of diverse people and teams to engage with each other in a constructive, learning-focused way. “Diverse perspectives, heuristics, interpretations, and predictive models can produce value only if they’re put to work,” says Page. If we’re to earn the diversity bonus we need the discipline to transform varying points of view into learning and progress.

Building our conversational capacity is an actionable way to develop this discipline.


Conversational capacity refers to the ability to engage in constructive, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects, in challenging circumstances, across tough boundaries — and about different points of view. You can measure the conversational capacity of an individual or a team by the ability to converse in the “sweet spot” under pressure – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and courage are balanced with curiosity and humility. It is in this “sweet spot” where the most learning occurs. Candor and courage are high, so people are being honest, open, forthright, and direct. But, curious and humble, they’re also open-minded, intellectually modest, and eager to learn. When we’re in the sweet spot, we have the ability to raise our hand and speak up, and the ability to listen and learn – even in high-pressure circumstances that aren’t making it easy.

Conversational capacity, therefore, is a critical competence if we’re to transform diverse points of view into learning. “If people don’t engage across the divide of their differences, there is no learning,” says leadership scholar Ron Heifetz. “People don’t learn by looking in the mirror. They learn by talking with people who have different points of view.” But to do this, the ability to balance candor and curiosity under pressure is the key. It’s hard to learn from our differences if we’re out of the sweet spot ignoring or avoiding them, and it’s hard to learn from our differences if we’re out of the sweet spot and dismissing or arguing over them. The farther we let ourselves and our teams get out of this balanced dialogue, the more diversity of thought becomes a weakness rather than a strength; a source of defensiveness rather than a source of learning. So the ability to balance candor and curiosity while exploring strongly differing points of view is a critical variable for teams seeking a diversity bonus.

The farther we get out of the sweet spot the less we’re able to learn from people who see the world differently.

Our conversational capacity, therefore, can be measured by our ability to learn from difference under pressure. If we want to strengthen this ability, there are three mutually reinforcing areas of practice:

  • Emotional discipline: In the very circumstances we need to be in the sweet spot – leaning into and learning from difference – we often have the hardest time staying there. Why? Because our defensive reactions knock us off balance. To strengthen their ability to remain balanced under pressure, people with high conversational capacity learn to recognize and rein in the powerful defensive emotional reactions that block their ability to learn from difference. They don’t get rid of these defensive responses – that’s not possible – but they’re better equipped to monitor and manage their emotions in a mindful way.
  • Cognitive discipline: To stay in the sweet spot, we must adopt a mindset that serves as a conversational compass to help us stay on track in situations where it’s easy to lose our bearings – a navigational beacon that helps us stay true to our course even in the confusing fog of a high-pressure conversation. This mindset is centered on one overarching goal: learning. With learning as our primary objective, we lean into difference, not in pursuit of agreement, but to expand and improve our thinking. “Achieving an organic, bottom-up inclusion,” says Page, “requires that people believe in the value of interacting across differences and thus seek diversity bonuses.” The conversational capacity mindset serves this very purpose, because our differences aren’t viewed as inconvenient, troublesome, or irritating, they’re seen as the raw material from which insight is generated. And the greater the diversity of perspectives the greater the learning potential. With this frame of mind, we don’t just value diversity because we’re supposed to, but because we see it for what it is – the opportunity to enhance our thinking. Put differently, when learning is our goal, we see diversity of thought as a highly valuable resource to explore, rather than a problem to overcome.
  • Behavioral discipline: “I have witnessed, read about, and hear accounts of hundreds of diversity bonuses,” says Page. “ I believe that we can build organizations, and even a society, where we achieve them as a matter of course.” But, he adds, doing so requires we “practice inclusive, productive behaviors.” For that very purpose, the conversational capacity discipline provides a well-defined set of just such behaviors. Through the deft use of two candor skills, and two curiosity skills, we’re able to take the mindset and put it to work. Simultaneously candid and curious, we put our ideas on the table in a clear way to help spark learning in others, but we’re also working hard, and often harder, to help our colleagues get their ideas and perspectives on the table – especially when they differ from our own. This is important. With high conversational capacity we don’t just adopt a mindset clearly focused on learning, we also have the ability to align our mouths with that mindset. The skills make the mindset actionable. With these inclusive, productive behaviors, leaning into difference is more than a cliché, it’s operational – you can see it in the balanced behavior of people in a meeting or conversation.

Our conversational capacity is measured by our ability to learn from difference under pressure.

Our conversational capacity is measured by our ability to learn from difference under pressure. And building this ability requires strengthening our emotional, cognitive, and behavioral discipline. This requires practice. The good news is that our workplaces provide a rich source of opportunities for that practice. Chock-full of hard decisions, tough problems, difficult people, contrasting perspectives, relentless change, competing priorities, and time-pressured goals, the workplace is the ultimate dojo for building our conversational acumen.

The greater the diversity of perspectives, the more opportunity for practice, and with more practice, the better we become at learning from diverse perspectives.


If your goal is to build a smarter, more adaptive team, project, or organization, here’s an overview of the key points to consider:

  • When dealing with complex, adaptive tasks, diverse teams outperform less diverse teams. The diversity creates a bonus.
  • We need to build diverse teams and organizations that can generate adaptive learning in a deliberate and disciplined way. “When the world is predictable you need smart people,” said Henry Mintzberg. “When the world is unpredictable you need adaptable people.” In a world which is more unpredictable, and in which the challenges we’re facing grow more difficult to address, adaptive learning is an increasingly vital competence that will separate those who flounder from those who perform.
  • But diversity alone doesn’t do it. Our differences can expand our learning or constrain it; they can be a source of strength or a weakness; they can make us smarter or they can make us dumber; they can be an asset or a liability. Diversity only provides a bonus if we know how to leverage it for learning.
  • This is where the conversational capacity of our teams and organizations comes into play. With emotional discipline, a clear cognitive focus, and the skilled behaviors to back it up, a person or team with the ability to balance candor and curiosity is able to remain learning-focused – rather than defensively reactive – even when exploring strong and divergent points of view. This enables people on the team to engage in balanced, constructive dialogue in situations that cause less disciplined people to shut down or go ballistic. It helps create a conversational culture that places a clear and consistent value on leveraging difference for learning.
  • The greater the diversity the higher the conversational capacity needed to leverage it for learning. Every team and organization is a constellation of people with different personalities, educations, experiences, preferences, identities, and knowledge sets, and the greater this diversity the wider the net they can cast in terms of learning. But it’s important to remember that the greater the diversity, the higher the conversational capacity required to engage it in a constructive, learning-focused way. Fortunately, when it comes to building this ability, our organizations provide the perfect place to practice.
  • CC + Diversity = Bonus, and the bonus is learning. Why does this matter? When we’re up against a complex problem or adaptive challenge, learning is the key to progress. But, if we really want the bonus, we need both diversity of thought (multiple perspectives, or vantage points, from which to consider the problem or decision we’re facing) and the ability to turn it into learning. If you have a team with high diversity, for instance, but lack the ability to engage your differences in a constructive, learning-focused way, you get little more than misunderstanding, conflict, and dysfunction. Conversely, a team with high conversational capacity but low diversity may engage in balanced conversations but still suffers from limited learning because they lack the diverse perspectives needed to spark insight. And lastly, if you have a group that suffers from both low conversational capacity and low diversity, it’s not really a team – it’s just a hodgepodge of people with a feeble capacity for collaborative learning.
  • We should think of diversity, therefore, as a strategic asset. And we should think of conversational capacity not as a “nice to have” ability, but a core competence that enables us to take full advantage of that asset.


  • Changes and Challenges
    • How complex or adaptive are the changes and challenges facing your team or organization?
  • Degree of Diversity
    • What is the current degree of cognitive diversity in your team or organization, and how can you increase it?
    • Do people in your organization fully appreciate the power of diverse perspectives and treat them as a valuable resource?
  • Level of Conversational Capacity
    • Is the conversational capacity of your team organization sufficient to turn differing perspectives into learning? Or do you see people avoiding their differences? Arguing over them? A mix of both?
    • What can you do to strengthen your team’s ability to learn from difference under pressure?

* For a more in-depth look at the topic of adaptive learning, see this article: and see Chapter 7 on Adaptive (Double-Loop) Learning in my first book, Conversational Capacity.

If you’d like to learn more about conversational capacity, and how to build it, visit, or

Sources and additional readings:

This article was originally published on Linkedin:

Craig Weber

Known for his impactful work and his engaging delivery, Craig Weber is a sought after speaker, author, and consultant. His pioneering ideas about conversational capacity and adaptive learning are outlined in his bestselling book, Conversational Capacity: The Key To Building Successful Teams That Perform When The Pressure Is On (McGraw-Hill, 2013), his new book Influence in Action: How to Build Your Conversational Capacity, Do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference (McGraw-Hill, 2019), and his popular Conversational Capacity eCourse.