"Being virtually killed by a virtual laser in a virtual space is just as effective as the real thing, because you are as dead as you think you are." - Douglas Adams
Let me reassure you before we go on: The use of virtual reality to train leaders hasn't taken nearly such a dark turn. No one is getting killed by lasers—not even virtually.
But the reason I started off with this quote is to make one thing clear: while the virtual world may not be real, the emotions you experience in virtual reality (VR) are just as real as anything you experience in actual reality. The powerful emotions generated in VR scenarios don't just help to create understanding, but form memories similar to those created by real experiences. And that has a tremendous potential to transform how leaders see the world and practice leadership.
At DDI Labs (our team focused on innovation) we've been exploring the potential of VR to better support leadership growth. While VR is increasingly being used in training to help people practice functional skills for everything from manufacturing to surgery, it's relatively untested for leadership applications. However, our tests are revealing deep potential to deliver transformative experiences for leaders, particularly in two areas: as empathy-generating tools, and as a safe space for skill practice.
An empathy-generating machine
As VR entrepreneur Chris Milk famously referred to it in his TED Talk, VR is known as the "ultimate empathy machine." Rather than trying to generate empathy by observing a situation, as would happen when watching a video or reading a story, VR puts the participant directly in another person's shoes, enabling them to really feel what it's like to experience life from another perspective.
Because empathy is the number one most important leadership skill, using VR to develop empathy in leaders is a powerful tool, particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Many of the issues around diversity and inclusion in the workplace come down to a struggle to relate to people who are different from ourselves. After all, most leaders, especially at higher levels, understand the research connecting diversity to better business results. But for people who have often been part of the "in group," it's tough to understand what it's really like to feel left out in the workplace. And in many cases, they may quietly wonder why people who are marginalized don't do more to try to avoid being left out.
Enter virtual reality. When we tested VR experiences where the participant is purposely excluded, it created a powerful reaction for many leaders. For some, it was their first time ever experiencing exclusion at work, leaving them feeling angry and profoundly moved. We heard things like, "I've always been on the other side of the situation. Have I been making people feel this way all along?"
In follow-up conversations, participants also commented that the experience often stayed with them for a long time, challenging their thinking about how they'd been approaching things.
For those who had experienced exclusion before, particularly women and minorities, the experiences tended to produce relief, as in, "Yes, that's exactly what I've been trying to explain about what it's like."
At times, there were even tears shed. For them, the VR scenario became a tool to share their lived experience to help others understand.
I started to think, "Have I been on the other side of the table where I’ve made people feel like they can’t get a word in edgewise?"
A psychologically safe space for skill practice
Consider the tough coaching conversations that come up in every leader's daily life, whether helping an arrogant but brilliant employee become a better team player or engaging in tough salary negotiations. Leaders often dread these conversations, worrying about how the other person is going to react. What if the other person begins yelling? Or crying? Or refuses to accept the decision that had been made?
While strong leadership skills can help these conversations be successful, leaders often feel unprepared for them, particularly at the emotional level. That's why it's a defining feature of effective coaching programs that leaders have opportunities to practice using their new skills in real conversations and get feedback in the classroom before they attempt to apply them on the job. But while skill practice in a classroom setting can produce powerful results, there are some limits to their effectiveness.
First and foremost, success depends on whether leaders feel that they are in an environment of psychological safety, which means they feel comfortable taking risks and trying new things without any fear of social or professional backlash. Ideally, people feel comfortable enough with their peers in the classroom to try out their new skills with one another, but it's also common for people to be fairly reserved in role-playing exercises for fear of making a mistake or seeming silly.
In a virtual environment, however, social fear quickly evaporates. While the person you're interacting with is very real to you, there's no concern that what you say in a VR scenario will come back as teasing at the office holiday party. Participants are free to be creative and earnestly practice their skills, knowing that it's a safe environment to experiment.
A second issue with skill practice in the classroom is that it's typically a low-tension environment. While role-playing partners may challenge one another, it's rare to see someone break down in tears or express true anger, although those outbursts of emotion commonly happen in real life. In VR, however, people can test their skills in worst-case scenarios, which can help them feel more confident in real-life conversations.
There's also the problem of on-demand practice outside of the classroom. Many leaders find it helpful to practice with a colleague right before a tough conversation, which may not always be possible depending on the availability of a peer or the private nature of the conversation. Again, virtual reality offers something humans can't: constant availability and privacy.
There will always be a place for practicing skills with a real-life partner; however, virtual reality offers powerful possibilities to help leaders test their skills in ways that their peers can't.
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.
Getting started with virtual reality
While many organizations are showing interest in VR, it can often feel beyond reach. But as VR technology comes down in price, it can be a relatively simple endeavor to use the technology to create indelible learning experiences within current training problems.
We advise our clients to think about VR in two ways: 1) creating VR learning stations that can be used on demand for practice or relevant experiences, and 2) incorporating a VR experience into training to reinforce concepts and increase retention of learning.
These options are just the tip of the iceberg. VR is showing tremendous new opportunities to accelerate learning and retention for leaders. And who doesn't want better leaders, faster?
Learn more about DDI's virtual reality experience for inclusion training.