Bringing Culture Back: Managing Unconscious Bias to Strengthen Your Corporate Culture

Woman holding book and speaking into mic with one hand expressively raised
Dr. Michele A.L. Villagran offers workshops on developing cultural intelligence and creating inclusive workplaces.

The Library Leadership & Management Association (LLAMA) presented the session “Bringing Culture Back: Managing Unconscious Bias to Strengthen Your Corporate Culture” at the 2019 ALA Annual Conference. Dr. Michele A. L. Villagran of San Jose State University, School of Information, presented on cultural biases, how they impact the workplace, and how they can be managed.

She started by making the point that we are all biased, whether we think we are or not. The biases present in a given organizational culture can affect the organization’s ability to attract top talent, effectively interact with diverse patrons, and maintain a multicultural and diverse workplace. Bias can also cause conflict and create a toxic work environment.

Villagran then turned to what bias is and how we can address it. Our biases are the filters through which we see the world; they are not inherently wrong, but they do need to be surfaced and examined. Unconscious biases are absorbed from our culture and may not align with our stated beliefs. While having biases is inherent to being human, biases are malleable. Increased awareness of unconscious biases helps prevent unfair judgements (thoughts) and helps grow cultural awareness (behavioral change). To uncover unconscious bias affecting workplace diversity, Villagran recommends taking a critical look at the language and images being used by the library and at the outlets turned to for marketing the library and posting job ads. She also recommends conducting a cultural assessment.

Villagran reviewed four specific cognitive biases which can have an impact on diversity and the general culture within a workplace. Affinity bias is our tendency to feel more positive towards people who are more like us. Confirmation bias is our tendency to only notice facts and evidence which confirm what we already believe — we as humans choose to ignore or devalue information that conflicts with our beliefs unless we make a deliberate effort to the contrary. The halo effect causes us to make later judgements based on our initial impression of someone rather than on the person’s later behavior. This can cause us to either treat someone more favorably because we had a good first impression of them or less favorably because we had a bad first impression, even if their behavior beyond the first impression were to be essentially the same. Perception bias is when stereotypes about groups make it difficult or impossible to gain an accurate impression of a person, because the perception of the stereotype is overriding objectivity.

If biases are left unchecked, then multicultural effectiveness is hindered, negative word of mouth drags down the ability to attract top talent, staff development and promotion is uneven (some people are given all the opportunities while others stagnate through no fault of their own), and creativity and innovation are squashed. To reduce bias, practice self-awareness, have honest conversations with others about bias and about how you might be displaying it (it is generally easier to spot bias in others than in yourself), consider how you can improve bias-impacted behavior, evaluate policies and practices for bias, engage in self-care (to prevent burnout), and keep practicing. Everyone has their own work to do when it comes to bias, but we also all need each other’s support. A practical way to start countering bias is to deliberate use micro-affirmations: thank and acknowledge people; be sincere, kind, and polite; and reach out across group boundaries.

Presentation slides and handouts are available to registered ALA Annual 2019 attendees.

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