Are your employees and customers engaged or just sensitized? – by Brad Kolar

When I was younger, every summer we’d take a boat trip around Lake Michigan.  I can still remember how tedious the first week of the trip felt.  Moving along at 6-10 knots (7-11.5 miles per hour) almost felt like standing still.  By the end of the trip, however, it felt normal.  On days that we’d catch a good breeze and hit 15 knots, it felt like we were speeding along.  After two months on the boat, we headed back for land. Unlike the tedious initial moments in the boat, the first few minutes in the car were terrifying.  Moving along the side streets at 30 miles an hour felt like we were travelling at the speed of light.  Our various reactions to speed throughout the trip were influenced by what psychologists called sensitization.  Sensitization is the way that your brain recalibrates its response to something based on the amount of exposure you have to it.

In a prior entry, I discussed a sensitization experiment conducted by Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis.  In the experiment, the researchers exposed participants to an annoying noise for an extended period of time.  They then had them rate their level of annoyance with the last five seconds of the noise.  They compared those results to people who had only been exposed to the noise for five seconds in total. The people who had been exposed to the noise for a longer period of time rated it as less annoying.  They were sensitized to it.  What once was very annoying no longer seemed as bad.

Those examples made me wonder if our employee and customer satisfaction/engagement surveys are really just providing us with a measure of sensitization.  I’ve certainly seen sensitization occur within a work environment.  When processes, co-workers, or leaders aren’t effective,  people initially express frustration.  However, over time they just start to live with it and accept it.  The same is true of customers.  These days, I’m greatly relieved when I actually receive my order correctly or when a customer service agent solves my problem on the first try. I barely even pay attention to whether they were nice, friendly, courteous, or efficient.  Getting a high mark from me today is much easier than it was five years ago.

Conventional wisdom suggests that if you are working in a tedious environment, your satisfaction and engagement will continue to decrease.  However, studies on individuals who live with chronic pain find that their pain tolerance increases over time.  After a while, they actually feel less pain relative to the way the initial perceived it.

Perhaps those engagement or satisfaction scores are really just showing that your people or customers are becoming sensitized to the environment that you provide.

In addition to simply looking at customer service or employee/engagement scores, start asking people to provide qualitative explanations of the ratings.  That way you can find out if a “3” from four years ago is the same as a “3” today.

Unfortunately, there appears to be little research (that I could find) on sensitization in employees and customers. So, clearly these thoughts are just speculative based on how sensitization works in other areas. Yet, it’s worth considering.

Remember, numbers don’t always tell the full story. It’s important to understand how people calibrate their expectations so that you can better understand their ratings.  Otherwise, you may be celebrating your ability to beat your customers or employees into submission while thinking you are improving their experience.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at