Be unpredictable; kill habituation with creativity, inconsistency and innovativeness

Consistency causes habituation, which leads to loss of attention

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When you visit hill stations, you will often hear the constant singing of cicadas, which can get rather annoying for those who are not native to the region. However, you will find that the locals go about their business without even noticing that incessant noise. This is because they are habituated to it. They hear it continuously on a daily basis and have learnt to tune it out. Thus, habituation may be described as the phenomenon wherein an individual exhibits the tendency to ignore a certain stimulus to which he has been exposed frequently.

Instances of habituation are many. You will often hear of employees working the graveyard shift driving home every night, without even remembering the ride home. Some have literally dozed off at the wheel and yet reached home safe. Their senses are so habituated to taking the same route every night, that they can now reach home with their eyes closed, literally.

Imagine if this affliction took hold of all the employees in an office. What if they became so habituated to the daily routine of reaching office, logging in to their systems, going about the day’s work and returning home, all in a mechanical fashion? They will start equating work to monotony.

Team leaders may succeed in holding the attention of their members by rewarding the top performer in terms of a badge of honour or a certificate. This form of recognition may even motivate the team members for a few months or may be a year. But soon, the staff will become habituated and this form of recognition will stop interesting them. If certain employees are assigned the task of arranging the display board at the reception every morning, they will go about it with a lot of enthusiasm at first. They will probably experiment with different themes every day, try to innovate and put in extra time and effort. But once habituated, this work will become a monotonous task. The concerned persons will go about it mechanically. In other words, their heart and mind will be elsewhere while performing the task.

Take another instance, of say, a monthly team lunch. If the team is used to being taken out for lunch to a certain restaurant near the workplace every month, it will not be surprising if the number of team members attending the lunch starts to dwindle, till finally somebody moots the idea of a change of venue or even a change of event altogether.

Habituation lets people perform repetitive work without giving it any conscious thought. Compare it to the work of a lift operator, pressing buttons effortlessly, mechanically, almost like a robot. You think he is enjoying it? Not after a few weeks into the job. No. He just does his job because it pays him and because it has become a habit for him.

Employers must beware of employees becoming habituated to their routine. The more habituated they are, the more bored they will be and the more chances of quality suffering, unless we are talking of a worker whose only job is to stitch a button on the cuff of a shirt at a tailoring unit.

If employers wish to keep their employees engaged, motivated and enthusiastic day in and day out, they have to ensure that the factors responsible for habituation are taken care of. In other words, they will need to focus on dishabituation.

Strategy 1: Reduce the frequency of exposure to a particular task or activity. The more frequently a task is done, the more the chances of it becoming monotonous and boring. Give your employees something different and challenging to do once in a while. For instance, an HR executive can be asked to shadow a marketing person for a short while or vice versa. Get one of your sales personnel to handle the reception for a day!

Strategy 2: Increase the gap between activities or events. For instance, a movie date with the team every month will not be as looked forward to as a movie night thrice a year.

Strategy 3: The longer we are exposed to something, the faster habituation sets in. For instance, long and formal training sessions spread over a couple of days fail to hold the attention of the trainees. Shorter, more casual sessions may have better impact.

So, get rid of the repetitive patterns in the working environment if you fear the employees’ responsiveness is decreasing. Instead of calling for an update meeting in the formal environs of the conference room, gather together your team on the lawns for a picnic lunch to get the updates. Take in their enthusiasm and casual-cum-serious attitude to work.

May be it is time to reduce the number of official e-mails sent out to the team members. Send out mails only if absolutely necessary. May be just once a week. Not only will the mails be more carefully read, their contents will be registered in the minds of the readers too.

Forget the notice board which the employees pass by every day without stopping to read. Introduce the PA system. It will be heartening to watch the staff sit up and listen when the PA system comes to life once in a while announcing something of interest. Communicate creatively to engage your workforce.

When it comes to recognising and rewarding your best performers, go ahead and offer them a whole range of prizes in different forms, and let them make a choice. Spa treatment coupons (may be include the spouse too); travel packages (may be for the whole family); gift vouchers to purchase high-end electronic gadgets, jewellery, or even branded clothes; sponsorship of skill-enhancement courses, and so on. The options are innumerable, if you just let your imagination loose.

Simply put, employers need to stop being predictable and introduce new stimuli. They need to break the rules and do something different, and also do some things differently. Sticking to rules means being consistent; consistency leads to habituation; and habituation leads to loss of attention.

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