Envision the following scenario: You and your team are on a video call, hashing out ideas. Person A proposes an idea. Person B interrupts says “Nope, we tried that a couple of years ago. It didn’t work.” Person A doesn’t say anything for the rest of the meeting.

How about this? You send a message to someone on your team asking for information so you can finish up a slide deck. You wait, but you don’t hear anything back hours, even though you can see that your teammate is online and got your message.

Or this? You and the team are chatting at the beginning of a meeting and someone makes a joke about people from a demographic group that you identify with. The joke made fun of people like you.

These are all examples of incivilities, chronic but low-level forms of a lack of consideration or disrespect that may or may not feel personal.

The Goal: A Civil, Respectful and Inclusive Work Culture

We’ve heard the research about how civil, respectful, inclusive work cultures are good for business in multiple ways, in addition to be “the right thing.”

What is civility? It’s more than merely being polite. Civility also involves being aware of how our words and deeds — and those of others — impact the people around us. In addition to be aware, being civil also means adjusting our behavior mitigate possible negative effects. It’s being mindful of how we can make people’s interactions more respectful.  Which means we have to have some idea of how they might react to ours and others’ actions. When we act civilly in these ways, we help create an inclusive culture.

The Challenge: Understanding, Motivation and Ability

Creating an inclusive culture can be challenging. It’s one thing for an organization to make respect and inclusion part of its value statement, but it’s another thing to have employees aligned and on board with it, understanding what — specifically — it means on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. In other words, to have a respectful, inclusive culture individuals need to:

  • Know what is expected of them.
  • Be sufficiently motivated to behave in the expected ways (and ideally, rewarded for doing so).
  • Have the ability to behave in the expected ways.

It’s a tall order to expect employees to understand, be motivated and be able to be civil, respectful and inclusive without significant help and supportive infrastructure from the organization.

Different people may have different ideas about what constitutes respect. How are we to know how to behave in a respectful way toward our colleagues?

A (Partial) Solution: Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) allows us to step into the shoes of other people from different races, ethnicities, genders, ages, regions, heights, physical abilities. By putting on either a dedicated VR headset or using a smart phone in a mobile VR headset, or even seeing immersive video on our computers, we can have a sense of living in other people’s worlds. VR can help learners develop all three of the critical elements needed for a civil, respectful culture.


You believe one of your colleagues is a jerk who said and does disrespectful things. I may even witness it. But being in a VR experience on the receiving end of a jerk‘s uncivil, disrespectful behavior helps me understand deeply what you experience It helps me “get it” in a new way. Understanding helps us see things from their point of view and thus have better awareness of what might be disrespectful to that person.

Motivation: Empathy As a Key Driver

Psychologists sort empathy into three difference categories. We can “know” what it’s like for a colleague to be treated disrespectfully. It’s another thing to feel what it’s like. Psychologists refer to the former as cognitive empathy: To understand intellectually what another person is going through, in a descriptive way. In contrast, emotional empathy is feeling something akin to what the other person feels. Compassionate empathy is a third type of empathy in which the power of understanding (cognitive or emotional) is such that we are motivated to act on behalf of others. Thus,

  • Cognitive empathy = to know.
  • Emotional empathy = to feel.
  • Compassionate empathy = to act.

VR, done well, can heighten all three types of empathy and, in this way, serve to motivate behavior change. When I “experience” firsthand in VR what it is like to be on the receiving end of behaviors that someone else sees as uncivil, disrespectful, or exclusionary , it helps me more deeply understand that person’s experience, and motivates me to do better. VR can induce all three types of empathy, with compassionate empathy motivation action. Various research studies have shown the VR is a powerful way to induce empathy and increase motivation for behaviors that are helpful to others.


It’s one thing to understand and be motivated to be civil and respectful. It’s another to have the ability to do so. Research has shown that VR can train soft skills more effectively than traditional methods. Ability here involves two components. One component is to be able to be civil — for instance, to be respectful of others’ time and efforts, not interrupt others, not tell a joke at someone’s expense. The other component is to be able to intervene when we witness others being uncivil.

VR offers the possibility to upskill our abilities to be civil to our colleagues. We can learn how to approach situations more effectively, to be better able to talk to colleagues in a civil way —particularly when there is conflict — to be able to get back on the rails a conversation that veered off course. To help us learn how to be better allies to our colleagues who experience incivility or disrespect.

VR Advantages

VR offers several advantages over traditional training methods. For example:

  • It doesn’t depend on the skill of an individual workshop leader, so the experience is consistent across employees.
  • It’s a private experience, so there isn’t the same social risk of saying or doing the wrong thing during the training.
  • VR is such a powerful form of experiential learning that typically people become fully engaged in the process.
  • When wearing any type of headset, people can’t multitask and they aren’t likely to zone out. VR taps into participants’ curiosity.
  • VR using mobile VR headsets or immersive video on computers can easily be done with remote employees. The latter method requires no special equipment.
  • The experience itself can be a topic of (virtual) water cooler conversations.

There are potential drawbacks. Using dedicated headsets, such as the Oculus headset, requires an additional cost, would likely require employees to do it in the office (versus at home), and require some dedicated staff time to schedule use of the headset and make sure its batteries are charged. As with all services, the content of the VR experience can vary from vendor to vendor.

Despite these drawbacks, the power of virtual reality to upskill employees and make your organization one in which employees enjoy interacting with each other, customers are pleasantly surprised when interacting with employees, and business partners look forward to engaging with your organization. The resulting impacts are priceless.