Can virtual reality become the next big thing in leadership development?

Sunday, June 19, 2016 - 11:46

By AIM Business School Faculty, Dr Richard Carter

When Facebook buys a virtual reality headset company (Oculus) for $2 Billion and their famous COO Sheryl Sandberg (author of Lean In) has to hose down speculation about how rapidly virtual reality will become a major income stream for them, you know virtual reality has arrived.

Everyone from NGO’s like Amnesty International, games designers and filmmakers are using virtual reality to build support for social causes. And the evidence suggests its working because it generates empathy – the missing link to move people from cognitive ‘concern’ to emotional ‘action’.

So what does this mean for leadership development?  The Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) published a white paper 10 years ago that clearly showed the relationship between empathy and job performance – Managers/leaders who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. CCL defined empathy as “the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others. Empathy is more than simple sympathy, which is being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity”. Fundamental to experiencing empathy is the ability to “Step into another person’s shoes” or perspective taking. That’s where virtual reality makes a difference – the experience is so real that you really feel the sensation of being someone else.

While virtual reality takes generating empathy to a new level by using the latest technology, there are numerous techniques used by organisation psychologists, leadership development consultants and educators to help leaders truly feel what it’s like to step into another person’s shoes. For example, organisational theatre (forum theatre, intensive role playing and entertainment education) are particularly powerful means of helping participants see other perspectives - and as a result generate the motivation for participants to modify their behaviour appropriately.

While virtual reality technology already has clear applications in the entertainment industry, it can also aid in leadership development as Dr Richard Carter explains.

Similarly leadership 360 assessment tools such as ‘LMAP 360’ (used in AIM Business School’s capstone unit Corporate Strategy and Responsibility) provide the catalyst for seeing other people’s perspective. Using a psychometrically-based and empirically-validated 128 question survey, the LMAP 360 report includes 2 stories about you – the first as you see yourself and the second as others see you. The narrative in the report gives leaders the opportunity to reflect on the extent to which their perspective of themselves is similar to or different from others - and helps them see things from new perspectives. In the process overly domineering leaders learn to become more empathetic – and overly deferential leaders learn to become more assertive.

Fortunately empathy is not a fixed trait. As a core component of emotional intelligence (EQ), empathy is a “task-specific” behaviour that can be learned and mastered. And as a leader becomes more proficient at being empathetic, s/he will not only improve their job performance in the eyes of their direct reports and others but the skill they learn will translate into the wider EQ “domain”.  As CCL points out in their whitepaper, coaching (including feedback) and training (personal mastery) can be used to help leaders learn the skill of empathy. I would add role modelling (also known as “vicarious learning”) to that list. And that’s where virtual reality can help as it’s a particularly powerful form of vicarious learning.

Helping leaders develop superior empathy skills is all about boosting their self-efficacy beliefs – their confidence in their competence as well as personal agency and control to be empathetic – and their belief that effort will lead to success. The combination of personal mastering, role modelling, feedback and coaching with virtual reality technology will leaders move from cognitive ‘concern’ to emotional ‘action’ – and be truly empathetic.