Can virtual reality teach executives what it feels like to be excluded?
When Brian Ritchey attends a meeting, he’s almost always the one running it. But when the COO and VP of Pennsylvania-based metal supplier Ritchey Metals put on a virtual reality headset, he wasn’t at the head of the table.
“I was in the boardroom with a group of diverse women. I was the only male in the room. They would try to interrupt me,” Ritchey remembers. “I was so annoyed at everyone in the meeting—no one would listen to me.”
Ritchey was testing a new VR-enabled diversity and inclusion training program developed by Pittsburgh-based leadership consultants DDI. Intended to teach (mostly white, mostly male) executives like Ritchey what their employees experience at work, the scenario places the participant in a meeting where he or she is trying to report a set of findings to a group of peers and superiors. But the simulation places a familiar set of challenges in the way: meeting attendees cut off the executive as he tries to read his script, make decisions at a lunch he wasn’t invited to, accuse him of “just being too sensitive,” and leave him to return to his reports with the news that he just couldn’t get the job done.
“It’s really what it’s like to feel excluded at work,” says Mina Sipe, a senior innovation consultant at DDI Labs who developed the simulation.
Virtual reality has taken off—if not with consumers, with businesses, which are using it for technical training (think teaching pilots to park planes) as well as professional and personal development. DDI’s training takes advantage of one of the biggest benefits of virtual reality—the capacity to create empathy by literally putting a person in someone else’s shoes—within the C-suite context. While some startups, including Translator, have developed similar use cases for virtual reality, DDI has an advantage when it comes to implementing this kind of training at scale. The firm works with 78% of the Fortune 500 in some capacity, giving this technology the potential to change how leadership teams nationwide understand exclusion and treat their millions of employees.
First, as the #MeToo movement transformed corporate America, DDI worked to develop a training that showed what it was like to be harassed in a hostile work environment. The company quickly switched from harassment to exclusion; it’s “where the market is,” says Ryan Heinl, director of product innovation at DDI Labs.
Then came the next tweak: the makeup of the roomful of executives who exclude the person with the VR headset on. When DDI at first developed the VR experience to resemble the real world—with mostly male executives committing the same slights—the real-life men participating in the training didn’t register that they were being excluded. “We had a few guys going, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ They felt like they were part of the group,” Sipe says. Putting women in those seats flipped the switch to help C-suite men understand that something was wrong.
While the training is most effective for executives who don’t have an innate understanding of what exclusion feels like at work, it provides a different lesson—and often, a sense of validation—for participants who don’t need virtual reality to know what it feels like to be talked over in a meeting. Dina Clark, North American head of diversity and inclusion for high-tech materials producer Covestro, a Bayer spinoff, found that the VR scenarios resonated with her experience. “I’m an African-American female, I’m 5’3”. I’ve always had to fight to be seen and heard,” Clark says. “It brought up triggers from early in my career.” Other participants have cried, started sweating, or almost flipped the table, Sipe says—a far cry from the usual zoned-out reaction to corporate training videos.
For Ritchey, the training has changed how he manages the meetings he runs, which usually consist of a mostly white group of 10 men and two women who report to him. “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?’” he says. “When I’m in a meeting now, sometimes it’ll trigger for me a couple seconds too late, maybe we’re going down a road where someone’s ideas aren’t being heard.”
A version of this article appears in the November 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “VR in the Boardroom.”
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