What if you had to walk across a balance beam atop a 1,400-foot skyscraper to lead your team to victory?

That was one of the two virtual reality exercises that the 2018 cohort of the Executive MBA (EMBA) program at the Gabelli School of Business in Westchester found themselves wrestling with in a course led by professor Julita Haber, Ph.D. 

The experience was created through a head-mounted device that simulated the fear of heights. The software and equipment was provided by Lyron Bentovim, president and CEO of the Glimpse Group, a virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) company.

Haber, a clinical assistant professor in the leading people and organizations department, believes the emotional immersive exercise can help students understand the skills and characteristics that are key to building and leading high-performing teams.

“The topic of team dynamics and technology go very well together,” she said. “I wanted to create activities that would evoke emotions and enhance their communication skills to reach a goal.”

It’s a team exercise that’s relevant to students’ work in the program, which thrusts them into leadership situations.

“In general, most of the students in the program have developed an expertise in a specific area, but they want to have more of a bird’s-eye view of an organization to formulate and implement strategies as leaders,” said Francis Petit, associate dean for global initiatives and partnerships at the Gabelli School.

Though EMBA student Ryan Grillo was able to climb the computer-generated skyscraper and walk across the beam successfully, his responsibility to his team didn’t end when he completed the task, he said.

“We were all trying to help the students who were afraid of heights eliminate some of their fears,” said Grillo,  who works as a general manager at a company that manufactures elevators and other related products. “I’d say, ‘Walk straight or walk towards my voice. You can do it.’ Some people were able to walk over or at least take baby steps.”

In the second VR/AR exercise, one student from each team was selected to deactivate a bomb. The student received directions from five other team members.

“Our team trusted each other more than I had anticipated,” said Stephanie Miano, GABELLI ’18, a sales manager at an international based luxury brand. “When it came down to the wire, we communicated effectively and did our best to work together.”

“Each exercise provided me with a different framework for my thought process in how to approach a situation,” added William J. Allan, GABELLI ’18, a financial professional at a global business and tech consultancy. “It [showed]me the importance of delegation and teamwork in time-sensitive situations.”

Haber said VR/AR experiences can challenge misconceptions about team work, including the myth that people don’t need to like each other to work well.

“When people like each other, it often helps to achieve a high quality of creative and innovative results,” she said, adding that effective teamwork is crucial to team success. “Well-designed team processes that are coupled with an individual’s ability to influence others can increase a team’s sense of control over the deliverables.”