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Empathy has its limits. That is, the ability to build empathy. You can read books, sit through trainings, and listen to people talk, but it’s hard to really know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.
Virtual reality has a chance to change all of that. Dr. Robin Rosenberg has been interested in virtual reality training for 25 years and has developed some of the early programs that actually put individuals in the daily life of someone not like them.
“Emotional understanding is what moves us, not cerebral understanding,” says Dr. Rosenberg. Until we cross that hump of really understanding what it’s like to be someone else, it’s hard to make any behavioral changes.
Dr. Rosenberg says that many DEI trainings do more harm than good because they cause some participants to be more entrenched in their views than ever before. But Dr. Rosenberg has demonstrated that a training that includes virtual reality can not only build empathy, but also lead to real change.
We also had a great conversation about why it’s such a big deal to never find out how tall your colleagues are.
Dr. Rosenberg on LinkedIn
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Dr. Robin Rosenberg. She is the CEO and founder of Live In Their World. Hey, Dr. Rosenberg. How are you today?
I’m good. Thanks so much for having me.
I’m very excited to talk to you. You have some really cool stuff that you are in the middle of and that you’re doing and a lot of good thoughts about different things. But let’s start to make sure that you are a real life human. Your CAPTCHA question is this. If I give you $20 to go into a grocery store, you can walk out with no guilt whatsoever, what is it that you walk away with?
Today it would be frozen yogurt. It’s hot in New York City.
Excellent. And do you like a flavor or just pure, regular frozen yogurt?
I’m thinking vanilla for a root beer float at the moment. But you never know.
I can’t imagine a scenario where a root beer float is a bad idea. It can be hot or cold. I think that suffices. But yeah, I feel like walking away with ice cream is always good, frozen yogurt, anything like that. I’d agree with that. That’s a very human answer.
Yeah, you pass. Good job. So tell us a little bit about who you are or what you do with your company and what we’re going to be talking about today.
Sure, I’m a clinical psychologist, and became interested in virtual reality 25 years ago, because it has some similarities with hypnosis, which we can talk about, if you like. I had been certified in doing clinical hypnosis. But I thought about VR, I was collaborating on some research with using VR when Trayvon Martin was killed. And then George Zimmerman was acquitted. And that was the beginning of Black Lives Matter. And then that led to some white people to say All Lives Matter, or White Lives Matter. And not that I presume to know the lived experience of being black in America, but I wondered if VR would be helpful to really give people a sense of what the lived experience was so that they might understand better. And long story short, I ended up getting funded, after Me Too, to do some research on whether we could do it for gender. And we got great results.
And so then I launched the company. And so we have a program that uses the science of learning and psychological science to really help people deeply understand bias and incivility and upskill employees for respectful engagement. And we use what is called Distributed Learning, which is learning in small doses over time, because one and done trainings tend not to work, even when they’re very compelling and engaging. It’s like language learning. If you don’t use it, you lose it. And we’re really ultimately talking about new habits in the workplace and habit training.
Let’s go back. You said you’ve been interested in virtual reality for 25 years. So what did virtual reality look like in 1996? What was that like?
So I don’t know, because I was reading about it. So what happens, I was doing clinical hypnosis. So, for example, if you had an elevator phobia, I mean, back then I like to say, before there was VR, there was hypnosis. So, if you had an airplane phobia, which is actually a better example, I would use hypnosis to treat you. So I would put you in trance and have you imagine things leading up to an airplane flight, and then an airplane flight. And we know from neuroimaging studies that when you’re in trance, the parts of your brain that are creating this trance experience register the experience is real. When there was psychology of VR literature that started 25, 30 years ago, and it was described, I thought, wow, isn’t that interesting? When in a headset, it’s similar to the experience of trance, because you’re in this world that’s not the world your body is in. And yet, you’re creating something, you’re interacting with it as if it were real. And it turns out, of course, shock, that when you’re in VR, your brain is registering that VR experience is real. So both hypnosis and VR have what’s called divided consciousness or dual consciousness where you’re holding the reality of the trance or VR experience is real, like in your head, it feels real but you also know your body is somewhere else. So, you know it’s not real, but it feels real. And you can hold both of those at the same time. I just found that fascinating. That’s how I got interested in VR. I just thought, wow, that’s so cool.
And I love how you’ve applied that. Because a lot of times, we talked about the five levels of a digital workplace, and for the most part, when we get to what we call level two is just what we’re trying to replicate, whatever we did in the office, let’s just do it in a digital format. So all these bad trainings we all have to sit through with videos, and like maybe role playing was the most in depth you could get. So let’s just replicate that in a digital experience. And that’s really bad. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t do much. But this is actually saying there’s something about a digital train experience in a virtual reality setting that can actually push us much further down the road of actually learning what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes.
Right, it is as close as you can get without actually somehow sort of like a body snatcher, the opposite, you’re snatching someone else’s body.
That’s the literature you’re reading right now, body snatching to see how you can get that?
So there are some people who are incredibly suggestible or hypnotizable. where if they’re reading something, they can imagine it vividly if the text prompts them in the right ways. But for most of us, we don’t really understand. I mean, there’s cerebral understanding. But it’s the emotional understanding that often moves us.
So you said that you achieved great results from some of this training that you’ve done. Can you explain what that means? How are you evaluating the effectiveness of this?
Sure. So just because I’m a psychologist, my first view is do no harm. And we know that some DEI trainings can actually be harmful to some people. So there’s a percentage of people in many DEI trainings who have what’s called reactance, which is that they become even more entrenched in their original beliefs than they were before. And those are beliefs that the goal was to try to change. So in that sense, the intervention is harmful. And so of course, the whole point is to do no harm. What we did is we had men, white men and men of color, do a VR experience where they were a white woman experiencing various ways that bias and discrimination manifests in a workplace, sort of low levels, and just see what that was like. And I gave what’s called the IAT, the Implicit Association Test. I don’t know if you or your listeners are familiar with it. But it’s a way that is a bit controversial about what is it actually measuring, and is it measuring state or trait, something enduring or something kind of fleeting. But the idea is that it uses a delay in response time to measure attitudes.
This is the one where they show two images or two ideas side by side, you have to pick one?
So, yes, or words, sometimes images, sometimes words, and you have to pair, let’s say, counter stereotypical words, like the ones they use in gender is man and family, or woman and work, they view those as counter stereotypical pairing. So, they measure your response time for typical pairings, like women-family, men-work, and counter stereotypical. There are a bunch of others, but this is just an example. And that’s been used a lot in the literature as a way to assess, again, attitudes, which may or may not be associated with behavior, but nonetheless, that’s what. So we measured that before and after, and that gave men this experience. And then we also measured how much they felt they were in the experience what’s called presence in VR. And we then asked them, before and after as well, asked them to assess written scenes in a workplace setting to report whether they thought there was gender bias or issues related to gender in the written scenes, and they were counterbalanced and all kinds of stuff.
And so after the experience, the men became more accurate at assessing when there was or wasn’t a gender related issue. Also, they had less stereotyped responses on the IAT. So, and that’s great and I respect data. But what was also rewarding is that the men, we asked them to write any comments they wanted afterwards. They were very effusive about how this was the best training they ever had. And wow, and how my fiance told me about one of these scenes, and I thought I understood, but I really didn’t, and now I understand how I didn’t understand. And I actually happened to run into a couple of men who had been in that study a year later. And a year later, they told me how powerful it was and the ways that they had changed their behavior as a result of that. And that was incredibly rewarding.
That’s really amazing. We had someone on the show earlier, we were talking about sexual harassment in the digital age and how that’s different. And then also the opportunity for some kind of virtual reality training about that. And I think that something like that can prompt someone maybe who’s like me, a white man, who would say like, yeah, sexual harassment is bad. No one should do it. That’s one thing to say. But when you actually get behind it and experience what that’s like, then all of a sudden, you become much more of a champion and be like, no, it’s not just bad. We can’t do this. You become that next level champion to really find it out and identify it earlier.
That’s exactly it. It’s that visceral understanding that moves people toward action in a different way. And that’s what we were going for. And that’s what we’ve tried to do with the original mission of post George Zimmerman’s acquittal, we have black man track, black woman track, and we’re adding Asian American and Latinx tracks as well. So it’s just come and have this experience and learn about it. But fundamentally, what we’re really talking about is respect or what we call unearned respect, which is just because it’s civility training.
Yeah, I want you to unpack that term a little bit because that’s something on your website, you call it civility training. You don’t really use necessarily the DEI labels on a lot of what you do. So explain that a little bit more.
Sure. So civility, one definition, there are many definitions of it, but on the one hand, talks about politeness and courtesy, but there are also definitions that talk about being mindful of the impact you have on people and adjusting your behavior accordingly. And I really, really like that aspect of this civility definition. That’s what we’re talking about, which is everyone should be treated with respect. And it makes the workplace a far better place. It makes everyone more productive. It makes teams better. Respect fundamentally underlies inclusion, which is being open and curious to people who are different than you in many ways, many, many ways people are different. Respect is about equity because if people are doing similar job, they have similar experience, they should be paid equitably, they should be paid similarly. And that’s a form of respect. And it’s a form of disrespect to pay people differentially based on an arbitrary demographic variable.
So I like the acronyms in order EID versus DEI or IED, because it all really flows from equity. Because it’s about fairness. And then again, so for me, it’s really a different angle, like an oblique angle of thinking about all of these issues. And equity should be transparent, by the way. So companies that really work to have equity, if they’re not transparent about it, then their employees don’t know how fair the company’s trying to be, and we all want to work in an organization that’s striving to be fair. So it’s being transparent about it. And then when you have transparent equity, inclusion flows more from that, because diversity without inclusion doesn’t work. I mean, people leave. Why would I stay at a company or an organization that I didn’t feel valued me or wasn’t respectful? So, you really need to have inclusion to have diversity work, and ultimately, equity seeds the grounds for inclusion.
Yeah, I love that a lot. There was something we talked about earlier where you said you had gone through an experience of learning what it’s like to be tall in one of the scenarios that was there, which I find fascinating. I, myself, am quite tall. And I can recognize that I probably live a different life because of that, and have different experiences because of that. But would you share a little bit about what that was like for you?
Sure. So I’m 5’2. And I have from time to time, more when I was younger, wondered what it is like to go through life tall, because our society does confer all kinds of advantages on tall people. And we filmed one of our male tracks, the person was standing so the camera was at his eye level. So I was his height, VR, and it was really disorienting. I mean, first of all, it felt like I was dizzy or something. It was very strange. But it was weird to be taller than someone else, I mean, someone else who is taller than I was. I mean, if we think about superheroes, it’s like Wolverine or Superman. What is it like to go through life basically knowing you can’t be killed? I’m not equating being tall, by the way, with being immortal. But it is this other way of being when you are taller than other people. It would be the same as if you were, I guess, a football player being 300 pounds, incredibly well muscled. What is it like to go through life like that? Or a boxer, to have lots of experience taking a punch, and so you feel less vulnerable.
Yeah, no, I feel that all the time. I walk into a room or in a crowded space and I know I’m not the biggest guy there usually. But I know I’m probably not the first target that somebody is going to go after, and I just have that confidence walking into rooms. I’ve heard that otherwise described, just whiteness and maleness in general gives that, but tallness as well, just feels like I can go anywhere I want. And I don’t have fear. I can just walk into places and not have that as opposed to constantly being wondering, okay, who’s around me? Do I need to protect myself? Am I safe here in different spaces? So it’s just that, it’s something that is genuine that I feel like we should talk about, and even if I think about the state of the world right now, for those who are still not in office, I wonder in virtual settings, if there’s more equity in terms of height even, if people who are shorter get more opportunities for promotion and are seen as leaders more well, because people don’t perceive their height as much. I don’t know. It’s just a curiosity.
Yeah. So they’ve actually done those studies in VR about how you relate to people because you can adjust their height in VR. And all of the social psychology studies that have been done about height, where the advantages of height are conferred in VR. And so one of the interesting things about remote work is it could be thought of as the great equalizer. Because you can’t really know someone’s height. I mean, I’m looking at you standing, for those who are listening on the podcast, I assume you’re standing maybe you’re sitting on a stool, but I don’t really have any cues about how tall you are because I don’t know where the camera is located. So the angle and you can’t tell that I’m short by looking at me because you don’t know how tall my bookcase is. So it’s just interesting the ways that going through the world in a different body changes the experience of being in the world.
So fascinating. Let’s get on to another topic I know you’re passionate about, which is this hybrid workplace and going through things, and even going off this, that’s one question I feel like if you haven’t met your colleagues before and you’re going back into the office, it’s always like, oh, wow, you’re tall. I didn’t know it. Or you’re short. I didn’t know it. Those types of things that we kind of laugh about that kind of stuff. But what’s been your experience in watching and observing and helping companies in their remote journeys and the hybrid journey specifically?
So I think the interesting thing about hybrid work is there’s the real risk for either remote workers or people who are in the office less, in essence, becoming a version of second class citizens. And so I think there are lessons for leaders and managers about how to make sure that doesn’t happen. And there are lessons for remote workers or people who are in the office less about what they can do to make sure they’re not putting themselves or helping themselves become second class citizens, if you will. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just how humans are and the biases we have that make us function in the world, but they lead to disadvantages. So I think that’s the interesting thing about hybrid work.
One fascinating thing that ties this whole discussion together is, without trying to downplay the different types of diversity out there, race and gender are obviously much bigger than a remote versus in person experience, that divide between the two. But once you have that inclusion mindset, you start applying it everywhere. You can see its applications in different places. And to your point about VR, that remote versus in office experience is actually something you can experience for yourself. You can learn what it’s like to be a remote worker, because in a lot of settings, if companies are talking about the hybrid model, I would say at least 80% to 90% of cases, the boss is going to be in the office, and they’re there maybe because that’s how they got to that position because of all the networking and all the relationships they were able to build through that experience. Or their season of life or whatever allows them to be in the office better. But if you can actually force that person to say, alright, we’re going to go hybrid, but you or me as a boss, or whatever, I’m going to be at home all month just to see what it’s like. That’s a really fascinating experience to get to actually sit in those meetings and see what it’s like to actually not be able to tap somebody on the shoulder, and what limitations you have, and what other advantages you get from that, too.
Exactly. And I think that there’s this other interesting piece about being the boss versus not being the boss, whether it’s in person or remote. But if the boss is remote, which happens in some companies, especially with the great resignation, as we’re experiencing now, where people are desperate for employees, 40% of people anticipated to quit their job in the next near term. And so they’re going to be hiring all positions far and wide probably because it’s going to be hard to find people who are located in the same area to fill all the positions. And so some leaders may be remote. And what is that like also to not be able to see your employees to tap them on the shoulder for the duration. So there’s having the experience to learn. But then there’s really this is what the job is.
Yeah. I’m so excited by what you’re doing and the opportunities that you’re giving to people to experience that because I feel like so many ills in our world could be alleviated by just learning what it’s like to be somebody else, and to be out of your skin and out of your body for a while to experience that. So thanks so much for sharing that, for doing the work that you’re doing. If people are interested in this, if they want to learn about it, and how they can apply it in their own companies, where should they go?
They can go to liveintheirworld.com. That’s our company. We have a ton of information there. And we have a hybrid leadership workshop series that we’re starting because it’s to help leaders be aware and how to troubleshoot some of these issues. And I’m on LinkedIn, Robin Rosenberg. I’m the only psychologist. There are other Robin Rosenbergs, but no other psychologists. Live In Their World is on LinkedIn and Twitter. And so happy to hear from folks. And for those who are interested, on our website, on our publications page, we have a white paper on best practices in giving and receiving feedback.
Fantastic. Well, we will have all those links in the show notes, so people can check those out. Dr. Rosenberg, it’s been fascinating to learn about this. And like I said before, I’m just so excited that something like what you’re doing exists because it used to be one of those things we thought, oh, wow, somebody should do that. And I’m glad that 25 years ago, you also thought the same and have been working on that this whole time. So thank you so much for being on the show. And we look forward to hearing from you again soon.
Thanks for having me, Neil, and for some great questions. And I love the work that you’re doing as well with The Digital Workplace. So thanks for having me.
Robin Rosenberg, Ph.D., is CEO and Founder of Live in Their World, a company that uses virtual reality to address issues of bias and incivility in the workplace and upskill employees for respectful engagement. She is a clinical psychologist, and prior to starting her company, she had both psychotherapy and executive coaching practices, wrote college textbooks, and taught psychology classes at Harvard University and Lesley University. She’s combined her interest in immersive technologies with her coaching and clinical experiences to foster in employees a deeper understanding of how and why other people may feel slighted or marginalized, how to approach such interactions differently, and she trains leaders to lead more respectfully and effective. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Clinical Psychology, and Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of California, San Francisco.