Habituation is the silent killer of engagement that all leaders should know about


Much has been written about the state of employee engagement, and for good reason. According to a recent Gallup survey, 76% of the Australian workforce are disengaged. Considering companies with a highly engaged workforce outperform peers by 147% in earnings per share, there’s ample cause for concern.

Typical engagement solutions focus on rewards and recognition, job flexibility and building leadership capability. These are all effective strategies, however, there’s often a deeper, more fundamental problem with the way leaders and organisations communicate. Specifically, a phenomenon known as habituation.

Habituation? You might not have heard of it, but you’ve definitely experienced it. If you’ve ever sat at the wheel of a car without remembering the details of the drive, tuned out during television commercials, or conducted a perfectly normal conversation with other parents amid the din of a five-year-old’s birthday party, you’ve felt what it’s like to be habituated.

For leaders looking to inform, inspire, educate, motivate and engage their people and teams, understanding the insidious impact of habituation on their communication is crucial.

It’s all in our minds

Our brain comprises two minds: implicit and explicit. Our implicit mind takes care of the routine tasks, the things that can be done automatically. This frees our explicit mind to think about other things, until something unexpected or important snaps it back to attention.

The relationship between these two minds is the reason we can perform routine and repetitive tasks with very little conscious thought. Factory work, clerical work, construction and driving: these are some of the roles where people are prone to operating on autopilot.

It’s because we’re animals

For all our advancements, biologically we’re still just animals. And like any wild beast, we have a will to survive, and the ability to learn in order to survive.This way of learning is habituation.

Over time, we learn not to respond to something that happens repeatedly without change, reward or punishment. This allows us to tune out the non-essentials and focus on the things that matter — the things that require our full attention.

Now, I’m fairly confident that the most critical injury ever inflicted by corporate communication was probably a paper cut, and the only fatality — death by PowerPoint. This places typical workplace messaging low in the hierarchy of needs, and therefore inherently less worthy of attention.

It’s a matter of exposure

The speed at which habituation occurs depends on four main factors:

    1. Frequency: The more often we’re exposed to something, the faster habituation occurs.
    2. Interval: The less time between exposures to something, the faster habituation occurs.
    3. Duration: The longer we’re exposed to something, the faster habituation occurs.
    4. Strength: The stronger something is, the faster habituation occurs. However, very strong stimuli leads to slower habituation, and in extreme cases it may never occur.

Now, consider how most organisations communicate. A constant bombardment of calls, memos, posters, intranet announcements, meetings and emails. When design is involved, grab the style guide and a template; copy and paste. High frequency, short interval, long exposure and high consistency — the ideal framework for habituation.

Using the same methods and mediums, the same language, tone and visual style, day in and day out, becomes much like the backgrounds of the daily commute — blurring by, blotted out.

Build a rhythm of unpredictability and delight

To break habituation, leaders need to address the causes: change the stimulus, change the frequency, change the interval, change the duration, and reduce the strength. This means changing the medium, changing the channel, and changing the style. For an organisation that always use posters — share a video. If video is ubiquitous, plaster the toilet door with a poster of two. If safety signage has been gathering dust since mutton-chops were fashionable, tear them down and change them up. Never default to templates for really important messages.
Consistency, consistency, consistency — grenade.

Shred the style guide

Truly, words fail when it comes to expressing the absurdity of using external brand guidelines for internal communication. Style guides are designed to foster highly consistent communication. Frequency, interval, duration, strength: these factors are extremely effective at gaining the attention of customers, people exposed to communication intermittently. But when the same techniques are used internally, to people exposed to the branding every single day — habituation is inevitable, as is the loss of attention and engagement that comes with it.

Effective workplace communication should consider more than consistency in the details and visuals; it should focus on the vision. The why. The culture. The values. The message. The stories. It should encourage creativity and allow for variation. It should foster curiosity, anticipation, surprise and humour to inspire and delight. It should make people feel something.

To engage their people and teams, leaders need to push past typical messaging and dare to create communication that cuts through habituation and seizes attention.

Dougal Jackson is co-founder of Jaxzyn, an employee experience company working with leaders of Fortune 500 and ASX listed companies. He is co-author of How to Speak Human (Wiley, 2018).

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