When to hire for cognitive flexibility (and more importantly: when not)

When to hire for cognitive flexibility (and more importantly: when not)

We all think we need to hire (cognitive) flexible people. Just because we need to be agile. Or because our startup is chaos. Or even because every single blog post you can find on Google is telling you that you should. Because hey, you want to be ready for the future of work, right?

You couldn’t be more wrong. Only wanting to hire what you think is ‘the best of the best’ not only makes your life extremely difficult, but it also hurts your team. Here’s why (and what to do instead). 

Let’s take one step back: What’s cognitive flexibility exactly?

Cognitive flexibility determines to what extent we can flexibly adapt our behaviours and thoughts to new and unexpected situations in a constantly changing environment. People who score high on cognitive flexibility will have a higher tolerance for error and disagreement, will be better at multitasking, and will be better at strategic decision making. People who score lower on cognitive flexibility are more habitual. It takes them more time to adapt to changes, and their tolerance for error or disagreement is lower.

Now, I can hear you thinking: Who wouldn’t want to hire someone who’s flexible, instead of habitual?!

Well, that’s also not what I am saying. I’m just trying to say that these behaviours and characteristics are not always as important as you might think. In fact, people who score lower on cognitive flexibility will show behaviour that you might need even more in your team. But more on that in a second. Let me first quickly explain why it’s so dangerous to only focus on highly flexible people. 

Why it’s dangerous to focus on high cognitive flexibility only

Now, as I mentioned above, it’s not that it’s a bad thing to score high on cognitive flexibility. It’s just that you don’t need it in a lot of jobs. So, while your job opening maybe doesn’t require cognitive flexibility at all, you might be filtering out amazing people who would fit the job perfectly, but of which you think they aren’t flexible enough.

And in this war for talent, I think I don’t have to tell you that that would be stupid. 

On top of that, it’s not a given that people with a high score on cognitive flexibility enjoy the tasks/responsibilities that people with a lower score will likely enjoy most. So you’re also risking a situation in which the wrong people are linked to the wrong tasks/responsibilities. 

Flexible vs. habitual: The differences

I already mentioned some implications of being flexible vs. habitual, but let’s just summarise all differences in one overview. 


Now, let’s first take a look at the differences in behaviour and characteristics. Flexible people find it easier to adapt to change and unexpected situations than habitual people, and they also tolerate errors and disagreements more. Whereas habitual people tend to stick to existing strategies, flexible people tend to change strategies often. And where flexible people are very creative, habitual people are very structured instead.

Now again, I can imagine that reading this table might make you want to hire flexible people even more. So that means it’s time to move on to the tasks and responsibilities.


Now, let’s take a look at the tasks/environment that flexible vs. habitual people will likely handle well.

Tasks that fit bestsTasks that are related to strategic decision-making, management, consultancy, and creativity.Tasks that require structure.
Environment that fits bestAn environment in which you’ll face various people, complex problems, and need to often adjust to changing environments.An environment that requires structure, deadlines, and planning.

So, you have no jobs in your company that require structure, deadlines, and planning?

Then you should definitely only focus on the highly flexible candidates in your pipeline. But I doubt that’s the case. 😉

And that’s why it’s so important to not only focus on one thing. A team highly benefits from having members on each side of the spectrum, some being more flexible and others more habitual in nature, depending on the different responsibilities in the team. There is no one-type-fits-all when it comes to cognitive profiles and jobs. Knowing your (potential) team members can help you select the right fit for your current team and support them in the right aspects of the position you are hiring for. 

Equalture: Measure cognitive flexibility through gamification

Here at Equalture, we develop neuroscientific games to help companies make better hiring decisions. Our games, focused on cognitive skills and personality traits, not only assess your candidates, but also your current team. By assessing the current team first, you will get a clear overview of the current representation of your team – so for example, if your team consists of highly flexible people only, or not. This will help you determine what to look for in a next hire. 

Keen to try out a game yourself? Click here to do so. 

After reading this blog, I hope that for your next job opening, you will critically ask yourself the question if cognitive flexibility is really needed for the job, or if you only want this because everyone else also ‘wants’ it.

Cheers, Charlotte

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