How leaders use power matters. The effective use of power is key to influencing and leading others, yet research tells us that many women have difficulty in seeing themselves as powerful. They often associate power with control over others and distance themselves from that type of leadership, preferring to think of themselves as ‘effective’ and ‘influential’.
In reality, how leaders use power effectively is a complex matter and has a direct impact on workplace culture, employee motivation and performance.
Our research at Hult International Business School (awaiting publication) looked at how women can develop a positive relationship with their own power, and particularly at whether they could learn to see the value of relational power in the workplace using avatars (a digital representation of self), in a virtual reality environment.
Using avatars can aid changes in perspective and encourage behaviour change around how women think about and use their power in the workplace.
Using Avatars to explore power and voice in the workplace.
Female leaders taking part in a Women’s Leadership Program participated in a virtual session where they each became an avatar in their own confidential virtual reality.
Using virtual reality technology, they created their own scenarios and were facilitated through a reflective process to explore and gain insight into their personal power and voice in the workplace.
After the exercise, they were invited to spend a short period of guided reflection and writing in their journals and then join a small breakout group to share their experience and start to make sense of it with others. Participants were invited to continue their sensemaking with a coach or mentor following the session if needed.
We collected data from 70 women through an online survey and through deeper exploration with those willing to participate in seven online discussion groups. We were interested in how this learning experience impacted their thinking and acting in the world.
Many of the respondents were appreciative of the time the avatar session gave them to step back, reflect and analyse in depth some of the issues and situations they were contending with at work.
The research revealed that using avatars can aid changes in perspective and encourage behaviour change around how women think about and use their power in the workplace.
It gave these leaders an opportunity to gain a multidimensional sense of their own power and explore the tension between power and effective leadership. In short, it reframed their view of ‘power’.
The combined survey and focus group data also revealed that many participants improved levels of self-awareness through working with avatars. Increased awareness of their personal responsibilities for the problems they were currently facing was also apparent. They were consequently able to generate solutions or progress in their situations.
“I feel more empowered…I was not aware that others may perceive me as a threat to them, or maybe a bit afraid of me (someone told me this). So yes, I feel empowered, but I also have to be aware of their and my position, I do not want to endanger them, so I must pay attention to how I behave and use my power”.
Being an effective leader means recognising not only that you have power but that it must be used carefully and thoughtfully
The findings of this study support previous research (Jestice & Kahai’s 2010) which suggests virtual worlds can be used effectively as a tool to develop empathy and perspective-taking.
The use and manipulation of avatars in the ProReal virtual landscape gave participants the opportunity to recreate their workplace or a work situation. Through guided exploration they stepped back from their situations, looking at them from different perspectives and putting themselves in the shoes of their colleagues and others.
One participant relayed how seeing things through other people’s eyes has made her more empathetic with her team.
“It can be frustrating when people in my team are not achieving the dates we have set for example, for delivering a report. Then I am trying to guess what has been happening this week and so on. I would often imagine there is no explanation…so there was no empathy. Now I find out and try to see all the things that are going on, and if they have all the information they need.
Summary and implications for the workplace
Our research has shown there is clearly a place for exploring and learning using avatars in virtual reality. This innovative medium offers female leaders an opportunity to gain a multidimensional sense of their own power and exploration of the tension between power and effective leadership.
Many of the participants came to understand that being an effective leader means recognising not only that you have power but that it must be used carefully and thoughtfully.
How leaders understand and use power affects employees and colleagues either positively or negatively, and renders their leadership effective or ineffective.
Employees also learn the skill of using power from their leaders through their day-to-day interactions. It makes sense then that organisations continue to create opportunities to enable leaders to hone this aspect of their skill set.