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How to Effectively Use VR When Training Leaders

“Virtual Reality is a game-changer for leadership development.” “VR: The future of soft skills training for leaders.” “Future of leadership development: virtual reality and corporate training.”

Those headlines make up just a sampling of what we’ve seen in the last couple of years that pin virtual reality (VR) as the go-to solution for leadership training. But is it mere hyperbole? Are VR and leadership training really a match made in headsets? That’s what we look into here.

In this article, we’ll review leadership training basics, examine why VR may be suitable, explore the pros and cons of VR as a whole, and share examples of using VR for leadership training.

What Is Leadership Training?

On the surface, leadership training is the term that describes any training initiatives that aim to equip learners with leadership skills. Beneath the surface, things are more complex. There are many subtopics to leadership training, each of which requires attention.

Leadership training typically covers topics related to soft skills, including:

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Change Management
  • Communication (written, verbal, and nonverbal)
  • Managing Conflict/Team Management
  • Coaching and Employee Empowerment

As we bring VR to the forefront of this article, it’s important to keep in mind that leadership training has come to focus predominantly on soft skills. In fact, 57% of leaders say soft skills are more important than hard skills. 

That doesn’t mean technical skills are meaningless — far from it! Such skills are the focus of management training, which is distinct from soft-skill focused leadership training. Here are some technical topics that management training involves:

  • Time and Resource Management
  • Budgeting and Accounting
  • Business Analytics and Decision Making
  • Strategy Development
  • Project Management and Delegation

Regarding the importance of leadership training itself, let’s look at some interesting stats:

Additionally, organizations surveyed reported: 

  • 70% lower turnover rate
  • 90% lower absenteeism
  • 114% higher sales

In other words, there is no arguing the positive impact that leadership training has on employee performance, human resources, and the overall bottom line.

READ MORE: Corporate Leadership Training: What You Need To Know

Why Use VR For Leadership Training?

We know that soft skills are of the utmost importance to leadership training, and learning and development professionals are always looking for the best ways to help learners practice and refine them. VR can provide the environment just for that (and VR can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with a remote workforce!).

Whether it’s 360° video or fully simulated experiences, a VR solution for leadership training offers an immersive, risk-free practice space. Learners are able to:

  • Learn to a degree of immersiveness that helps them to engage and feel like they’re really interacting with other people
  • Train without having to travel and attend designated ILT sessions
  • Participate in consistent, repeatable role-playing activities in a “safe” environment

Now let’s dive into the top reasons you should consider VR for your leadership training:

Ability to Practice Soft Skills in a Risk-Free Learning Environment

Your business leaders may know how to manage their departments, but with proper leadership training, they can learn how to lead their employees. In VR, learners can practice empathizing, resolving conflict, and offering mentorship. They can also see, feel, and hear how people react to their decisions in a given scenario; they can reflect on what went wrong or right, and they can adjust accordingly. 

What’s important is that those actions take place in a “safe” environment that is designed for learning, rather than a real-world professional setting where leaders are already expected to have polished soft skills. 

Virtual reality’s biggest draw is that it’s a risk-free, realistic practice environment. Your learners can walk through complex social situations to work on their reactions and choices, without having to interact with another person. VR provides nearly unparalleled capacity for lifelike, interpersonal practice, which is crucial for building soft skills. And since leadership training is increasingly concerned with soft skills, learning and development professionals are naturally turning toward the technology that will help to develop them in their leaders. 

Recordable Metrics for Feedback and Correction

By utilizing technology such as VR, you can work tracking metrics into your program to help provide learner feedback and direction. VR solutions can track eye movement, head motion, and speech, giving trainers whole sets of data to assess (eye contact, active listening, and tone, respectively). This allows them to identify specific areas in which learners need to improve. 

Can Function as a Dynamic Part of Blended Learning

Is virtual reality the only solution for leadership training? In a word, no. VR is not the be-all and end-all for leadership training. In fact, you may find that VR is most fitting for only a few of the standard training steps, which are as follows:

  1. Introduce the material.
  2. Demonstrate the material.
  3. Learners practice what they learned.
  4. Learners receive feedback.
  5. Learners practice again.

If you’re following the standard steps of training, you might reserve VR as a dynamic option for steps 3, 4, and 5, and use other modalities (modes of training) for steps 1 and 2.

We’re describing a blended learning program, which is an approach to training that empowers you to make use of the modalities — be it instructor-led training (ILT), eLearning, VR, or augmented reality (AR) — that best suit your audience and the content. For example, your learners can walk through leadership best practices and tips through an eLearning module before their VR practice activity, where they are then asked to apply what they learned. A mix of modalities might be exactly what your learners need in order to reinforce the learning objectives, and VR can be an impactful piece to the puzzle.

READ MORE: The Future Of VR For Soft Skills Training

How To Use VR for Leadership Training

As researchers study the impact that VR has on especially sensitive matters — like implicit racial bias and domestic violence — learning and development professionals are already fast at work tackling broader themes of empathy, conflict resolution, and coaching employees. Let’s consider some specific examples of using VR for leadership training.

Using VR To Identify And Cater To Different Social Styles

For one client, we created a VR headset experience in which learners observe a meeting with four employees, who are played by actors. Their task? Identify each employee’s social style — driver, amiable, analytical, or expressive — before time expires. They can ask questions to see how the employees respond verbally and nonverbally. Throughout the experience, learners can change their answers. They are able to observe and adjust before submitting a final answer or running out of time. Take a look for yourself!

That VR experience could function as part of a leadership training program in which leaders learn how to identify the different social styles that make up their team. Plus, they learn how to be flexible with their own social style so they can effectively accommodate each team member.

Using VR To Apply New Leadership Knowledge

For another client, we delivered a 360° Video VR solution that challenges learners to apply recently acquired knowledge about leadership. In this scenario, the learner essentially shadows a new manager, Candace, as she interacts with her team in a variety of scenarios. 

The job of the learner is to choose Candace’s reactions for her, to help Candace to be a leader. Learners don’t simply receive “right” or “wrong” feedback; they see how the employees in the scenario react to their decisions. Those emotional reactions, which range from defensive to grateful, help learners to see which approaches to leadership will work in the real world.

Using VR To Coach Employees In Stressful Moments

In a final example of using VR for leadership training, we built a scenario that lets learners practice the delicate art of defusing a tense conversation. 

The experience begins with learners looking out from behind the desk toward the workspace. Through their ajar office door they observe a stressed employee, Jasmine, berate a colleague on the phone. From that point forward, the learner determines how the scenario plays out. One choice at a time, the learner either defuses the situation or intensifies it. The visceral feedback that comes from observing how Jasmine responds to learners’ choices helps them to feel the impact of their decisions and understand how they need to act in real-world situations.

What Are The Drawbacks Of VR?

For all the benefits that VR can bring to leadership training, there are some drawbacks to consider.

Is VR Expensive? 

The start-up cost for VR training can be higher than alternatives. Between the hardware, designing, programming, and more, the initial price may be daunting to your leadership team. However, the longer you use your VR training, the higher the ROI.

Additionally, there are creative solutions available that significantly reduce the cost — namely cardboard headsets.

As the above video showcases, cardboard headsets are an affordable way to use the power of VR, and they are easy to deploy and assemble! In fact, we used VR cardboard headsets for one of the leadership training experiences we mentioned above, the one in which learners shadow Candace. That training was originally supposed to take place in person, but a certain global pandemic had other plans. We offered cardboard headsets as a cost-effective solution to enable the learners to participate in the activities remotely. 

Are There Physical Side Effects To VR?

There can be physical side effects to VR. Some people will get headaches, nausea, eye strain, or even worse symptoms. And of course, your employees’ safety is the top priority. You must keep the VR activities short and include breaks between sessions. If there are employees that can’t participate, be sure to have alternative activities available. 

Read More: VR Training Safety: 5 Tips You Need To Know

Will Advances In Tech Make A VR Experience Obsolete?

The same minds that brought us present-day VR technology are already cooking up enhancements to it. Newer hardware and software, upgraded capabilities, and new accessories are sure to come. 

While this is exciting to imagine, it also means that you may have to refresh your program to stay current. That doesn’t mean your VR leadership training will become obsolete a month after you launch it, but you should find a learning partner who will advise you on the right technology to invest in now. Look for a VR learning vendor that is agile and will work collaboratively to continuously update the end product.

A Match Made In Headsets? That’s For You To Decide

We’ve explained leadership training and detailed the ways in which VR is a good fit for it. We also shared some examples of how you could use VR for leadership training, and we addressed the main drawbacks of VR. Now it’s up to you to determine if VR is the long-lost mate for your leadership training. 

Still unsure? Maybe you need to go on a couple of dates — er, demos — first. We’d be happy to arrange one!

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