Through the digital lens: How VR can inspire better managers

Since the dawn of modern business, the conference room has typically been a welcoming environment for people like me (straight, white, male), but at this very moment, I’m not feeling it.

In fact, as I scan the room to read the faces of the people seated around me at the long table–four women with diverse backgrounds and ages–I’m greeted with a menu of microaggression, including eye rolls, side glances and dismissive waves of the hand, almost as if I’m emitting a foul odor that offends them.

As the meeting progresses–at one point, the women are openly discussing lunch plans that don’t include me–I feel my palms pool with sweat as my pulse quickens. I notice my breathing is becoming labored even though I’m barely moving my body, save for the occasional and uncomfortable shift in my chair. I try to keep up with the meeting’s topics, but it quickly becomes apparent that, if this conversation is a highway, then my colleagues have closed off every on ramp to me.

At one point, I speak up to offer an opinion on a business matter, but I’m immediately cut off by the woman at the head of the table, who tells me my idea lacks merit, just as another woman chimes in to ask if I had even done any research on the topic.

As a sense of shame washes over me, I’ve never felt more like “the other” than I am feeling right now. This is, without a doubt, the worst meeting I’ve ever been a part of.

But, after it finally–mercifully–ends and I pull off the Oculus headset to return to the reality of an empty conference room, I immediately begin to wonder: “Wow, am I doing that same thing to people in the meetings I run?”

Discomfort by Design

That reaction is essentially the whole point of DDI Labs’ new VR Inclusion Experience, according to its creators. The experience in “perspective taking” was recently named a Top HR Product by HRE, and it gives the user the ability to look beyond his or her own point of view in order to consider how someone else may think or feel.

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Participants in DDI Labs’ VR experience are confronted with what it feels like to be excluded, Heinl says, because “once that awareness occurs, that’s the only time to create momentum toward change.”

To do this successfully, experts say, the user must first have some understanding of others’ thoughts, feelings, motivations and intentions, and the fact that I was looking at real humans–albeit prerecorded actors–instead of computer-generated avatars during the experience greatly enhanced the feeling of verisimilitude, in my opinion.

That unique feeling I experienced in the virtual conference room comes from decades of research, according to Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford University professor and founding director of its Virtual Human Interaction Lab. (He is not affiliated with DDI or its Innovation Lab.)

Bailenson studies the psychology of virtual and augmented reality, in particular how virtual experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others. His lab builds and studies systems that allow people to meet in virtual space and explores the changes in the nature of social interaction. His most recent research focuses on how virtual experiences can transform education, environmental conservation, empathy and health. He has shown off his lab’s work to some of the biggest names in business, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell.

VR allows you to do what’s called body transfer,” Bailenson says. “It’s a neuroscience principle involving seeing your own body movements on an avatar and, by doing these movements and seeing them on a different body, the part of the brain that gets activated when you think of yourself, it expands to include that avatar as well. You can actually have someone walk a mile in someone else’s shoes this way.”

As the pace of technology advances to allow training designers more freedom to create unnervingly accurate representations of real-world business situations, the number of issues that VR can help solve grows as well, including empathy-building exercises like the one I just went through.

Indeed, the VR market size is expected to grow from $7.9 billion in 2018 to $44.7 billion by 2024, at an annual growth rate of 33.47% during the forecast period, according to

“Virtual reality has the power to help leaders experience and manage emotional leadership situations in a way that no other tool or learning technique can,” says Heinl. “Whether the goal is to help leaders gain empathy for what others are feeling or to give them a safe space to practice emotionally charged conversations, VR changes the learning experience in a way we’ve never seen before in the industry. It’s a game changer.”

Making it Personal

The VR experience I just described is different in one very important aspect to earlier iterations of it, Heinl says. And it’s a big difference, too.

In previous versions, instead of being in a conference room with a diverse group of women, participants interacted with a group of white men.

“When we used that [experience] on other white men, they didn’t perceive the mistreatment aspect,” Heinl says. “Their interpretation wasn’t ‘I’m being excluded.’ It was ‘They’re just making a bad business decision.’ ”

It wasn’t until the designers switched the actors to a diverse group of women that the participants began to feel it was “personally” about them, Heinl says.

The brave new world of VR is full of these kinds of curious results, as Bailenson recounts in his 2018 book, Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works and What It Can Do. In it, he describes a 2009 experiment that attempted to induce racial empathy in white people by having them inhabit black avatars, reasoning that, if a white person took on the perspective of a black person, his or her racial stereotypes would break down.

However, after approximately 100 white people went through a job-interview simulation in which half saw themselves as black and the other half as white, researchers were shocked to discover that inhabiting a black avatar actually led to higher scores on standard measures of implicit racial bias.

“VR is a medium,” Bailenson says. “A medium can cause changes in behavior, but it depends on the content. And that’s really where the magic is.”

At RealPage, a provider of software and data analytics to the real-estate industry, diversity and empathy are top of mind, says Taiwan Brown, head of D&I.

Taiwan Brown, RealPage

“We are trying to answer the question of how to leverage the diversity of our people to drive innovation, more collaboration and better overall business results,” Brown says. “We are putting a focus on diversity at RealPage.”

To that end, RealPage has been piloting DDI’s VR Inclusion Experience with approximately 40 of the company’s 6,700 workers since February, and Brown says the experience has already proven itself valuable.

“When we first did the pilot, we took frontline managers through the experience,” says Brown, who also donned the goggles herself. “It was so impactful for me, I took it upstairs to Kurt Twining, our chief people officer, and he went through it and was talking about it for days afterward.”

She next took the rest of the company’s all-white executive team through the experience.

“It’s had an impact on everybody who has gone through it,” she says. “It’s so powerful because you get an opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes and see from their perspective.”

The experience has even led to personal moments of understanding, Brown says.

“When we did the experience with our inclusion council, I had a person on my team who sat in, and we had a conversation afterward and he says he was amazed that senior leaders can experience exclusion too. That was a real ‘wow’ moment.”

Brown does have a few cautions for HR leaders who may be pondering a move toward this type of training, which includes a post-experience session where participants can share and compare their feelings.

“It does generate an emotional response,” she says, “so I’d remind HR that psychological safety is important. It’s important to create that feeling, so think about the numbers of people. I wouldn’t do this in too large of groups.”

Making sure you get the right mix of people to participate is important as well, Brown says.

“We had an intact team go through it, one that knew each other well,” she says. “I don’t know that they got as much out of it as when we did a cross-functional group and put them in a room together to go through an experience like this.”

Brown says she heard feedback that such a grouping makes the experience even more meaningful.

“It got them to connect with people they don’t know,” she says of the cross-functional group. “They got to hear some different perspectives and experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to know.”

Tough Conversations, On Demand

While any conversation about race and inclusion will be fraught with its own perils, another unfortunate reality of the modern workplace is that few leaders feel prepared for the difficult work-related conversations they need to have, especially with their direct reports, and particularly at the emotional level.

Traditional training programs offer highly effective preparation by guiding leaders through role-playing scenarios with a partner. VR creates a new opportunity to prepare for emotionally charged conversations in a psychologically safe environment where leaders aren’t afraid to make a mistake or seem silly in front of a colleague, says Heinl.

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That’s what Yale School of Medicine was looking for when it partnered with DDI to beef up its leadership-development program, says Yon Sugiharto, the school’s director of learning and development.

“We were really impressed with how far VR has come,” Sugiharto says of a pilot program in which a dozen YM managers were tasked with speaking with a

Yon Sugiharto, Yale School of Medicine

chronically tardy employee. “It’s no longer just for games; VR can offer a helpful and realistic learning experience for people who want to try a new leadership approach in a simulated environment, with multiple attempts.

“This is more than just having someone stand in front of a classroom and teach leadership,” Sugiharto adds. “Our faculty don’t have a lot of time to attend scheduled classes, so to offer a safe environment where they can don their VR goggles at a time which is more convenient to them and have their learning experiences, it would offer enhanced engagement for them.”

Sugiharto says Yale Medicine would like to test the Inclusion Experience with its managers as well.

“In healthcare, we have such a diverse population of patients, and we feel this is a possible tool for all managers and leaders,” he says. “Anything related to diversity and inclusion is helpful for us to lead better.”

The Million Dollar Question

When it comes to creating lasting learning experiences, Heinl says, empathy can be a powerful thing in business.

“When you feel empathy, it improves your performance,” he says.

But in a bottom-line business setting, where every dime is expected to produce a dollar, how can something like empathy ultimately be measured?

“This is the million dollar question,” says Bailenson. “It’s a challenge. We look at a constellation of measures–some questionnaires more reliable than others, but none are perfect.”

Bailenson says the results of the lab’s recent “Empathy at Scale” experiment, involving 1,000 people using VR, offers a positive lesson for organizations.

“When we look at a large sample of diverse participants,” Bailenson says, “the good news for VR is that, even two months later, people are more likely to change their behavior when they do VR compared to other types of perspective taking. It’s the first reliable data set showing how this project changes behavior with a real population.”

When Bailenson tells me this, my chest involuntarily tightens as I realize it’s been exactly that long since my own immersive, unnerving VR experience. I can’t help but recall something Heinl told me:

“Forming real memories helps to create empathy for other people, so put yourself in their place and feel what it feels like.”

Two months later, I’m still there.

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Michael O'Brien
Michael J. O'Brienhttp://
Michael J. O’Brien is former web editor with Human Resource Executive®.