Want to be part of our Stories? Tell us your story
- Name: Dr Robin Rosenburg
- Location: NYC, USA
- Graduation Date: Ph.D. in 1987
- H index: 2
The last time we spoke about your company called Live in Their World, which uses virtual reality to address discrimination bias in the workplace. How has the project grown and what findings have you had with it?
Since we last spoke about “Live in Their World”, we’ve deepened what we do in terms of leadership training and coaching. We have been focusing on executive coaching because leaders and managers play an incredibly important role in top-down communication, supporting managers and employees, and making a difference. One of our interesting findings is not our research, but how we’ve applied it to leaders who want to support managers around inclusion and DEI related issues in civility training. It’s not enough for leaders to ask once on the subject of inclusion. It’s really important for the leader to be periodically checking-in with the manager. “How’s it going and what can I do to support you?” Even when a leader is very enthusiastic about issues with equity and inclusion, if they don’t check-in with managers, after a while, managers lose steam on the issue. Checking in is really important, especially if the leader is not offering any other resources or support.
What does it mean to “check-in?
It depends on the company, what its goals are, and how specific goals are operationalized–what it is that they want to do around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and civility. Often it may be things about professional development or talent development across the pipeline. It may be around hiring, it may be around how it’s going during team meetings, making sure that meetings run inclusively. What can leadership and management do to support their staff? It may be around equity and technology. For example, for task assignments, is work being distributed equitably? What can my company do to help? There are many different, very specific questions each company can ask.
I know you have a virtual reality portion of this company. How has that been doing since we last spoke?
Since we last spoke, COVID-19 hit. The virtual reality experience was originally designed to be used with an Oculus headset at work. Therefore, we had to expand the ways that the VR portion could be used with work from away. So we developed two solutions, one was with mobile VR headsets, which were upgraded versions from older cardboard models. There are some inexpensive mobile VR headsets that you put the phone in it and put up to your face to experience VR. You don’t get quite the same peripheral vision experience, but it’s inexpensive and portable. The other solution is immersive video, which is akin to YouTube 360 on your computer, no special equipment is needed, and it allows you to move around somewhat in the experience.
That was a question I was going to ask actually, how has COVID-19 affected your business?
We’ve added leadership training and coaching about equity and inclusion issues. We have lately been focusing on hybrid work. How can hybrid and remote work be performed in a way that’s inclusive when some people are in the office and some remote, or when the team is sometimes in the office or sometimes at home, how do you do ensure work is performed inclusively, how do you create equity and what is fair? That’s a whole other issue. There are no right answers that are universal for all companies. One of the interesting questions is what is fair if something is given to remote employees, in terms of flexibility, and what is equivalent for in-person employees? What’s fair? If you are in the office, are you expected to attend all meetings on your computer in your cubicle because that’s fair and equitable to remote workers. It gets very complicated. There’s the whole issue of who’s wanting to go into the office. So far, the data suggests that it tends to be leaders and people who don’t have great home requirements for working or incredibly ambitious people who believe that going in will help their careers.
Is this where you see the use of your VR project being utilized more? VR involvement with the changing work environment, where else do you see your project being utilized?
I think that the idea of being able to step into other people’s shoes and understand and experience how other people’s live is useful. With hybrid work, for instance, leaders need to understand the experience of hybrid or remote employees. In a year, leaders may forget what it was like to be remote. One of the recommendations is if you have remote employees or hybrid employees, that leaders need to mirror what their employees are doing so that they can understand the experience and what needs to happen because they have the authority and responsibility to support changes. If they’re in the office all the time, they won’t know what it is like to work in a hybrid or remote way.
I definitely see the importance of promoting that kind of experience in leadership.
It may also be that people don’t have a great work setup at home or they have childcare and eldercare commitments. What is it like to be tuning into these work meetings while juggling other commitments? is it like for the remote employees or my hybrid employees in their homes when their internet goes down, for example? Do we, as leaders, need to be paying for really high-speed internet for remote employees? Then you get into a fairness issue, if I’m in the office all the time, and the remote employees’ home internet is paid for and mine is not—do I think that’s fair?
These are very complex issues. Our job is to help, through leadership training, to encourage leaders to be aware of these issues so that they can attend to them in whatever way works for their organization or their team.
What are your future plans for this project?
I’m thinking about issues around wellness and mental health because of my clinical psychology background. The wellness issue has me pondering how we can help. That said, there are many new players in the space for wellness in the workplace, and they’ve been at it for at least two years. So I don’t want to re-invent the wheel. Let’s wait to see what the data show: Are there good solutions that we know works and then can we amplify that?
Could expand on what you’re thinking in terms of wellness and mental health issues surrounding COVID and how your company can help
I think different components of the COVID experience have hit some people psychologically quite hard. One effect is on personality. For people who are extroverts, COVID restrictions have been incredibly hard. The same thing for people who have attentional issues like ADD or ADHD because they thrive in a busy environment. For them, if you’re home alone, it can be very hard, and an ongoing daily struggle. Then there’s the isolation. Even people who are introverts have had to rethink how much of an introvert they actually are.
Having even casual interactions is important. Even those little micro-interactions, as I call them, which we might have in the office in the pre-COVID days are meaningful. For example, suppose you and I experience tension during a team meeting, say we disagreed about something. After the meeting, one or both of us might make a point of checking in, “What are you doing for lunch?” Or, “did you hear about this thing in the news?” Making those comments or questions are a way of “making a repair” or making sure we’re good with each other. If we didn’t do that, I might make a point of stopping by your workstation and saying, “Hey, I’m going to go make some coffee, do you want anything?” I don’t even have to mention that we had some tension between us after our disagreement. just eye contact matters: You look up at me as I walk by. We don’t have those micro-interactions with remote work. Our contact is really formalized. It’s often text-based, so it all feels weightier to ask permission to speak with you, even if you have some software that allows it to just be a button you press. For many people, even if it’s a 1-minute question they want to ask, they will just try to figure it out on their own. BUT these little micro-interactions build trust. The loss of these, in part, has led people to feel less engaged in the workplace and has us working more autonomously.
I think about how hard the first year of COVID was–the worry about getting sick, if and when our loved ones would get sick. And when people did get sick, the nightmare was of loved ones being hospitalized and dying alone; we were unable to be with them or gather as a community to mourn them. For many, the additional challenge was working at home in a physical environment not set up to be a workspace, especially if children were home. These experiences were unbelievably stressful and created a series of unknowns. It’s very stressful to know that something bad is going to happen, but not know for how long, and to know there’s very little we can or prevent it from happening. That’s what COVID was.
I definitely felt this myself.
Everything felt out of our control. There were things we could control, like not leaving the house, but really that was the only thing we control. Western societies have very little training in how to handle that kind of lack of control and lack of predictability. The perpetual unendingness of it was brutal. Even after vaccines were available, we thought “we’re home free.” But then there was Delta, and then, okay, we’re home free. And then there was Omicron, and then the other variants. It’s really an emotional rollercoaster.
I think there’s burnout. The first year, everyone wanted to keep their jobs because that’s what we knew and we do what makes us feel in more control. I think in the second year, people started to burnout, and that’s when meaning and purpose started becoming important. People realized life is short, so they thought about what they really wanted to do. It was around this time that, while some organizations were great and were very supportive of what it was like for people, others were not. Those organizations and managers just kept piling on the work. American organizations have typically asked employees to do more with less and at some point, people can’t really take it anymore, especially when it doesn’t feel like it’s just temporary.
There was another layer on top of that: The events of last year surrounding George Floyd’s death and similar racially-motivated cases.
This is where, again, your business comes in, this idea of creating this empathy and sympathy between the leadership and its employees on these subjects.
Right, between and among employees from different demographic groups. We all have a story to tell. (Even white cis-gendered men, which is also an interesting story that often does not get told.)
What advice would you give to people who find themselves in this sort of situation, say an unsympathetic company that doesn’t align with their needs or their morals? What would you advise them?
It’s tricky. In this time of the Great Resignation, it’s a good time to change jobs, since there are many openings. With some jobs, or in some organizations, it’s kind of like a long-term relationship that’s gone bad. At some point, it gets so bad that you don’t want to stay in the relationship no matter what. When it gets to that point, people feel like they have no choice but to leave. I think it’s about catching these feelings sooner and seeing what can be done because I think the other side of the equation is if you don’t tell people what you need and want, they can’t read your mind. If you’re in a workplace that feels like they’re expecting more of you than you can give, it’s complicated to talk clearly about work expectations. You have to consider what the work culture is. I think asking questions is a way of starting a conversation.
Do you have any other updates? Do you have any books or publications recently out?
Thank you for asking. We always have free eBooks available on our website. It’s usually on our home page, but also on our Thought Leadership page. We have written a lot of material for people to pursue, or join us on LinkedIn or Twitter for updates.
I’m going to switch gears a little bit because I know this isn’t the only kind of interest you have. I know you have an interest in the psychology of comic book superheroes and villains. Do you have a favourite hero and villain in either DC or Marvel?
I do. It’s the comic book version of Green Arrow. Not the CW version. It’s Green Arrow Year One, written by Andy Diggle. For people reading this, Green Arrow is sort of a blonde counterpart to Bruce Wayne. He’s a wealthy, substance-abusing playboy who probably has ADHD. He engages in very highly stimulating leisure activities; he’s a sensation seeker. He drops out of a helicopter on top of snow-covered mountains so he can ski down, and he forces his employees to do these things with him. He has no meaning in his life. His parents died, Then he gets stranded on a desert island. This is the part of the story arc that intrigues me the most. The only thing that he salvaged from his boat is a bow and arrows. He has to fend for himself—procure food, built shelter. For the first time in his life, he feels a sense of meaning and purpose. He feels good about himself and what he’s able to do. Long story short, it turns out there’s a criminal operation on the other side of the island, and in essence, he becomes a hero, and he feels good about it. When he goes back to his home city, he continues fighting the good fight and becomes Green Arrow. The reason that I like this story is that he is the same person with the same proclivities, the same temperament, the same likely ADHD, and likes the same highly stimulating activities, but on the island, he found a way to channel it that made him feel really good about himself and do good at the same time. I really loved the portrayal of peace is in finding his role: he’s still the same person. It’s just what changes is how he focuses who he is.
I know that you attended San Diego Comic-Con and I read that you had what was it like a presentation on, is the Joker a psychopath?
The Joker is indeed a psychopath, which is particularly clear in the Heath Ledger portrayal. I think he illuminates psychopathy, which people may not have had on their radar before that movie. It was great, fun, by the way to organize that Joker panel, with different versions of the Joker represented.
The joker (played by Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight (2008) really highlighted this for me.
I think it really helped illustrate that some people just like to blow things up, so to speak, and that doesn’t make them” crazy,” whatever that means. We can see that in our politics where some people just want to do things for the sake of it.
Would you say he’s your favorite villain or do you have another?
Well, I’m a DC person.
I actually like Lex Luthor, a Superman villain, because he’s human. He pits himself against Superman, who’s basically a God, and Luthor uses his intelligence. It’s a different story arc of how Bruce Wayne might have evolved in a similar circumstance to Luthor’s. I think Poison Ivy and Lex Luthor are interesting because from their point of view, they’re heroes.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into your field or start a business that is similar to yours?
I think the first step is to talk to people. If you want to start any kind of business, there’s the whole product-market fit to explore. And if you want to go into psychology, talk to people who are psychologists. Because times have changed and so what it was to have gotten your degree 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago is different than what it would be get your degree five or ten years from now.
Find out more about Dr Rosenburg and her work