Robin, Can you tell us about yourself?
I’m a clinical psychologist and for many years had psychotherapy and executive coaching practices. I also write psychology textbooks for college students, I write for a general audience, and do research on various topics. I became fascinated by virtual reality and its psychological impact about 25 years ago, because of some similarities it has with hypnosis.
In 2019, I started a company, Live in Their World, which has a program that uses virtual reality to address issues of bias and incivility in the workplace and upskill employees for respectful engagement. In virtual reality, we put users in the shoes of people from different demographic groups so that they can better understand workplace experiences of harassment from the perspective of a given demographic group. Users can also see how each person in the virtual scenarios can do things differently to make the interaction—and the workplace—more civil and respectful. We also help upskill leaders and managers for the specific sets of behaviors that help create an inclusive workplace.
I love being able to put my psychological knowledge to use in this new way, to help a larger number of people and make the workdplacebetter for people.
How did you start your career in DEI or Social Impact?
Although I’ve always been mindful of DEI issues in my clinical work, what got me laser focused on it was hearing some white people say “white lives matter” and “all lives matter” in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. I had wondered whether virtual reality would be a way to help some people deeply understand the experience of being Black in the US so that they would be motivated toward equity and inclusion. At a social function, I mentioned the idea to a venture capitalist I knew, but I wasn’t equipped to move it beyond the idea stage, and virtual reality wasn’t consumer-ready.
After the #MeToo movement gained ground, that venture capitalist contacted me and offered to fund a proof-of-concept study. Some DEI interventions can do more harm than good, so before committing to grow a company around my idea, I wanted to make sure that it both helped “move the needle” and also didn’t lead some people to become more entrenched in their original, not-particularly-sympathetic position. Our study got terrific results, and so Live in Their World was born.
Tell us about a personal experience on why our world needs more Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?
I grew up lower-middle class; my father was a NYC taxi driver. I remember his descriptions of how he felt disrespected by some passengers, and the ways it made him frustrated and angry. He even had a phrase he’d trot out: “What, their poop doesn’t stink?” The way his feeling disrespected at work affected him and his sense of self, in turn affected our whole family. That formative experience shaped my appreciation of the role of respect in the workplace, and spurred me to leverage emerging technology to improve workplace culture.
What does DEI mean to you?
Fundamentally, to me, DEI is about different facets of unearned respect. In that sense, DEI work promote those facets because it’s the right and fair thing to do, as a sign of respect. It starts with equity, which at its core, is about fairness. As organiziations strive to become equitable, it’s important to be transparent about it; otherwise organizations are doing the work without people knowing that the organization is doing the work. If they don’t know, then they don’t realize the extent to which the organization is trying to be fair and convey respect to all employees and applicants.
In a sense, diversity and inclusion flow from fairness. Inclusion, to me as a psychologist, really means habits of inclusive behavior—that people in the organization automatically behave in ways that are respectful, wecoming, appreciative, and valuing of each person and their contributions. It’s hard work to develop new habits, so we need:
- to be motivated to develop new habits,
- to know, specifically, what the new inclusive behaviors (habits) should be,
- help remembering to do the new behaviors.
Diversity is about welcoming a wide variety to people into the workplace, and making sure that there aren’t historical barriers for people from groups that have been typically marginalized or disadvantaged. Diversity goes hand-in-hand with inclusion, because if an organization isn’t inclusive, why would diverse employees want to stay (and why would diverse candidates want to join)? It also goes hand-in-hand with equity, for similar reasons. The three facets are distinct, but connected.
What is your proudest moment as a DEI professional?
In the last couple of years, I’ve interacted with a number of people who were in our proof-of-concept study. They’ve told me how impactful it was and the ways that it’s changed their behavior. Hearing that we made a difference in their lives—and those of their colleagues—reinforces the importance of the work we’re doing. I’m so grateful to have heard from them.
If you could change one thing in terms of DEI, what would that be?
Hm…I need to break the one thing into two parts: First, it would be that DEI work is adequately funded, resourced, and integrated into the mission and culture. Second, it would be that organizations recognize that creating an equitable, inclusive, and diverse workforce requires upskilling the workforce by learning in small doses over time in a coordinated, planned way.
Why did you want to do this interview?
I want to let people know that, from my lens as a psychologist, I see opportuntities to help make people’s work environments—whether remote or in-person—a fairer, better place to work. But people need sustained help to create the necessary habit changes, and organizations need sustained help (in the form of new policies and procedures) to develop and maintain the organizational habits. But we can develop new habits.
Anything you want to share with your readers?
As many organizations move toward a hybrid workforce (some remote, some in-person) additional issues of equity and inclusion will arise. Humans are more likely to think positively of people we interact with more frequently (in general), and so it’s likely we’ll think more positively of people we see more often—the people we see in person. This will affect everything from how task assignments are made, who we include (and don’t) on emails, how leaders and managers evaluate applicants and employees, and how appreciated, valued, and engaged we are likely to feel.
This interview is part of the Global Diversity Thought Leader Series™