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Neuroscience and Change – Part 2

| July 26, 2016

by Jim Bruce

SCARF  ::  Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness

In last week’s Tuesday Reading, we introduced the concept that our brains have developed in such a way that we are extremely sensitive to threats from change and ambiguity.  We noted how our brains are constantly scanning our environment to detect such threats at a rapid rate.  We also noted that if not addressed the result is distraction, anxiety, and fear, followed by poor performance and more aggressive behavior towards colleagues.  
So, since change, and in particular organizational change, is all around us, how might we as both leaders and those led, better approach these threats? 
David Rock, quoting neuroscientist Evian Gordon, notes that the principle of minimizing danger and maximizing reward is the overarching organizing principle of the brain.  In response to a stimulus, the brain either tags the stimulus as “good” and engages (approaches) it or tags it as “bad,” and disengages (avoids).  Rock goes on to note that if the stimulus is associated with positive emotions or rewards it will likely be tagged by the brain as good, or if the association results in negative emotions or punishments it will likely be tagged as bad.
Scarlett points out that that when the brain tags the stimulus as “good” (this is called the “toward” state as it leads to engagement), we are more focused and able to learn, more willing to collaborate, more innovative, creative, willing to get involved, and have increased resilience.  And, if the stimulus is tagged as “bad” (the “away” state as it leads to disengagement), then we are more distracted and anxious, we think less clearly, and have reduced memory, poorer performance, a weakened immune system, and more stress.  And, it becomes more difficult to influence us positively.
David Rock also notes that the approach-avoid (or engage-disengage) response is a survival mechanism designed to help people stay alive by quickly and easily remembering what is good and bad in the environment.  The amygdala, a part of the limbic system, plays a key role in remembering whether something should be approached or avoided.  He says, “[T]he approach-avoid response drives attention at a fundamental level – nonconsciously, automatically, and quickly.  It is a reflexive activity.”
Social neuroscience explores the biological foundations of the way humans relate to each other and to themselves.  This research has demonstrated that social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the need for food and water.  The SCARF model, which involves the five domains of human social experience – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness – captures the common factors that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations.  Since the workplace is a social environment where the brain is constantly assessing such social interaction as either a threat or a reward, this model can be very helpful to leaders.
Here are the model’s basics:
Status is about relative importance to others. If you are respected, asked for advice, involved in new projects, etc., you will have a positive experience and a sense of “reward.”  If not, you may feel threatened.  One research study demonstrated that the reward from an increase in status similar in strength to a financial windfall.
David Rock reports that in most people, the question “can I offer you some feedback” generates a “status” threat response similar to the response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night.  Changing someone’s behavior requires reducing threat responses.  (For example, saying loudly, “Joe, it’s Sam.  Wait up, I’d like to walk with you.”)  Status increases when genuine, positive feedback is given, especially in public, as well as when people are learning and improving their performance.  Rock suggests that initiating feedback discussions by asking questions about how the individual believes he or she did reduces the threat response.  The threat response is also reduced if the individual asks for feedback on his or her work from a friend.
Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.  The brain craves certainty and when it doesn’t have it, it becomes distracted as it tries to work out what the pieces of information mean and whether it makes sense.  When it’s unable to predict, the brain uses significantly more resources, involving the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex, to process the moment-by-moment experience.  Large uncertainties, like not knowing your manager’s expectations, can be very debilitating.
Getting to a place of certainty is rewarding.  Being told that you “nailed it” on a project increases dopamine levels in the brain, a “reward” response.  Having and discussing plans, strategies, and road maps represent increasing levels of certainty.  And, even when knowing that the plans will likely change, people still feel better.  Breaking large projects into smaller steps increases certainty as does simple things like being clear about when a meeting will end, having clear objectives for the meeting or conversation, and having clear expectations of what might happen in any situation.
Autonomy provides a sense of control over our lives.  In particular, we don’t like to be micromanaged; if we are, our threat response is strong.  Even good intentioned advice can lead to a threat response if it’s seen as a mandate.
Working in teams reduces autonomy.  This threat can be mitigated by increases in status, certainty, and relatedness.  Providing options on how to proceed rather than saying “do it this way” will also provide a better response.
Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, with friends rather than with foes.  We need other people to ensure our survival and so we are “wired” early on to be social.  Every time we engage with a new individual, unconsciously our brains are thinking “friend or foe?”  And, since we have more neurons to detect threat, our tendency is to think “foe” unless there is evidence to the contrary.
People tend to form “tribes” where they experience a sense of belonging.  This tendency likely comes from our history of living in small communities for literally millions of years where strangers were likely to represent trouble and should be avoided.  When someone is seen as “dangerous” or perceived as a competitor, our ability to emphasize drops significantly.
In the absence of safe social interactions, the body generates a threat response which we experience as feeling lonely.  Meeting someone unknown tends to generate an automatic threat response.  A handshake, exchanging names, discussing something held in common all may increase the feeling of closeness.
Scarlett has noted that “Time with leaders, time in meetings, informal social gatherings, and team-based activities are not just nice to do, they lead employees to feel that they belong to the ‘in’ group and put their brains into a more constructive mindset.”  Having face-to-face meeting times isn’t a luxury; it is a necessity in building a sense of belonging and trust and in calming the mind.
Fairness is the perception of fair exchanges between people.  This is extremely important in times of change; if things are going to be different, the brain needs to know that the process was fair.  Work to see situations from the perspective of others involved.   Threats from perceived unfairness can be decreased by increasing transparency and by increasing the level of communication and involvement about business issues.  Leaders need to be explicit about ground rules, expectations, and objectives.  Give teams as much freedom as possible to set their own ground rules but be explicit about the boundaries they must work within. 
Having even a limited insight into the SCARF model helps individuals minimize threats and maximize rewards as they occur in each of our everyday lives.  We are able to label and evaluate experiences that may otherwise reduce our performance.  Research has shown that simply labeling and evaluating are effective in reducing the perceived threat.  Understanding how threats work in each of the SCARF domains allows an individual to design ways to motivate themselves more effectively.
The SCARF model also provides leaders with a set of approaches that can reduce perceived threats in the face of change.  For example, pointing out specifically how an individual is improving increases that individual’s status.  Certainty can be increased and ambiguity decreased with clarity and transparency of how a project will proceed.  Coaching can reduce the threat in all of the SCARF domains.
Rock quotes philosopher Theodore Zeldin who asked some 20 years ago, “When will we make the same breakthroughs in the way we treat each other as we have made in technology?”  These understandings from social science research may represent a small step in that direction. 
In closing this essay, I want to challenge you to find at least one thing in this model to experiment with in the coming week.  I believe it will make a difference and that you will want to find ways to use more of the model to reduce the threats you and your team experience in the face of constant change.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Hilary Scarlett and Mike Pounsford, Neuroscience and organizational change – providing the evidence.
Hilary Scarlett, Neuroscience:  Helping employees through change.
David Rock, SCARF:  a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others,  NeuroLeadership Journal, Issue One, 2008
Manie Bosman, Neuroleadership:  How Your Brain Fights for Social Survival in the Workplace