Skip to main content

Neuroscience and Change – Part 3

| August 2, 2016

by Jim Bruce

SCARF  ::  A User’s Guide

The focus of the past two issues of the Tuesday Reading has been on neuroscience and change.  Today’s essay continues this theme, providing some practical suggestions as to how you can employ SCARF to better understand yourself and to manage and lead others.
The work of David Rock and others has demonstrated that an individual’s brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system.  He writes:  “Leaders who understand this dynamic can more effectively engage their employees’ best talents, support collaborative teams, and create an environment that fosters productive change.  Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead.”
This begins by recognizing that the fundamental organizing principle of the brain is to minimize danger and maximize reward.  Our brains are constantly, subconsciously scanning for stimuli – both physical ones like the “saber-toothed tiger” and social ones like not being valued – and comparing the new stimuli against past experiences and our responses to them.  If the stimulus is new, it will be subconsciously classified as a “threat” (about five times more likely) or a “reward” and forwarded to other regions of the brain for action.  If it is recognized, i.e., it’s been seen and analyzed before, the likely action is to take whatever action was taken in a previous similar event.
For example, the fight or flight response in our brain helps us stay alive by triggering neurological pathways in our brains which enable us to react to danger without even having to think about it.  As we grew up, our brains “labeled” or encoded some stimuli (things you observed or experienced) as “threats” (e.g., food that tasted really bad) and others as “rewards” (food that you enjoyed).  These “labels” are stored in the amygdala.  From then on, whenever you come across something encoded as a threat or a reward, the amygdala acts to trigger an automated “disengage” (refuse to eat our spinach) neurological response when facing a perceived threat, or an “engage” (eat the ice cream) response when facing a perceived reward.  Similarly, your brain most likely encoded losing money, seeing a large predator, or facing a scar-faced guy wielding a knife as threats while receiving money, water, and safe shelter were all encoded as rewards.  Your brain, the neural pathways that are triggered, determines how you will respond without you consciously providing any real input.
The same neural responses which lead us toward food (engage, reward) or away from danger (threat, disengage) are activated when we socially interact with others.  People’s behavior during social interactions can trigger either a “threat” or a “reward” response in one another.  The human brain is basically a social organ which reacts to social situations (and social pain in particular) in exactly the same way in which it reacts to the physical environment (and physical pain).
Studies have shown that when a threat response is activated, it has a severely negative impact on our cognitive performance.  When the limbic system goes into its automated response, fewer resources (oxygen and glucose in particular) become available to the prefrontal cortex where conscious thought take place.  This means that when a threat response is activated our ability to understand, make decisions, remember, memorize, plan, inhibit impulses, solve problem’s and communicate is impaired.  Your creativity and innovativeness become restricted, you struggle to see the “big picture,” and ultimately your overall productivity drops.
So, let’s look at each domain of the SCARF model and identify some work related stimuli and the responses they generate.  Do note that changing a person’s behavior/response to a stimulus involves increasing the “reward” or decreasing the “threat” from that stimulus.
STATUS – Our sense of self worth, where we fit in.  Status is a significant driver of workplace behavior.  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.  If you sense that you might compare unfavorably to someone else, the threat response kicks in.
Performance reviews generally evoke a threat response;  people being reviewed feel that the exercise itself encroaches on their status.  Just asking “Can I give you some feedback” may put an individual on the defensive because of a sense that the person asking the question has higher status.  The threat response may be equivalent to hearing footsteps behind you in the dark.
Perception of status increases when you are given praise or positive feedback, especially in public;  perception of status increases when you learn a new skill, improve your performance on a task;  when you are shown respect;  and when you are acknowledged when you encounter others, even when passing each other in a hallway.  Status decreases in organizations that intentionally pit people against one another “to identify the winners.”
The neural circuitry that assesses status is similar to that which processes numbers;  the circuitry even operates when the stakes are meaningless, even when you are playing against yourself in games like solitaire.
CERTAINITY – Concerns one’s knowledge about the future.  The brain craves certainty and when it doesn’t have it, it becomes distracted as it expends energy to make sense of the data.  A person’s brain uses fewer resources in familiar situations than in unfamiliar ones.  Working with a lack of clarity can increase stress levels and impair a person’s ability to make effective balanced decisions.
When a person encounters a familiar situation, his or her brain conserves its own energy by shifting into a kind of automatic pilot.  It relies on long-established neural connections that have in effect hardwired this situation and the individual’s response to it.  This allows, a driver to drive and talk.  That is, until the driver in the car ahead slams on the brakes.  The person’s brain now flashes an error signal prompting the car’s driver to stop talking and slam on the brakes.
Uncertainty causes an “error” to be registered which leads to some correction that must be addressed before the person can feel comfortable again.  Uncertainty is not necessarily debilitating.  Mild uncertainty attracts interest and attention.  Too much uncertainty undercuts focus and performance.  When perceived uncertainty gets out of hand, people panic and make bad decisions.
Leaders must work to create a perception of certainty to build confident and dedicated teams.  Sharing plans, rationales for change, high level maps of a proposed organization’s structure, etc. are specifics that help people be more confident about a proposed plan.  Discussing how a decision will be made increases trust.  Transparency is the foundation on which the perception of certainty rests. Large uncertainties such as not knowing your manager’s expectations or how he sees your work on your current project can be debilitating.  Breaking large projects into small steps increases certainty.  People function better because the overall project seems less ambiguous.
AUTONOMY – Provides a sense of control over your life.  Your brain processes a lack of autonomy as a threat, leading to more stress.  Being promised and receiving more autonomy is seen as a reward. As long as people feel they can execute their own decisions without much oversight, stress remains under control.  Micromanagement creates a perception of less autonomy generating a threat response.  Greater autonomy increases the feeling of certainty and reduces stress.  Providing options, allowing an individual or team to organize their own work, etc., provokes a much less stressed response than forcing them to follow rigid instructions and a fixed schedule.
RELATEDNESS – Sense of safety with friends.  Groups build mutual trust and form a barrier against the unknown.  Fruitful collaboration depends on healthy relationships, which require trust and empathy.  In the human brain, the ability to feel trust and empathy toward others is shaped by whether they are perceived to be part of the same social group.
Each time you meet someone new, your brain automatically does a quick friend-or-foe check, compares the results with the models stored in the amygdala and experiences these new friends and foes colored by the stored models.  As a result, teams of diverse people cannot just be thrown together.  They must be deliberately put together in a way that minimizes the potential for threat responses.  The leader cannot just assume that trust will automatically result;  neither empathy nor good will can be compelled.  These develop only when people’s brains start to recognize former strangers as friends.  This requires time and social interaction.
Time with leaders, in meetings, in informal social gatherings, in team-based activities are not just nice to do.  These interactions lead employees to feel that they belong to the “in” group and put their brains into a more constructive mindset.  Face-to-face meetings are not a luxury but a necessity in building a sense of belonging and trust and in calming the mind.
FAIRNESS  – Perception of fair exchanges between people.  If a person thinks something is unfair, his or her brain automatically goes into defense mode.  The perception that an event has been unfair stirs hostility and undermines trust.  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.
The perception of unfairness creates an environment in which trust and collaboration cannot flourish.  Leaders, who play favorites or who appear to reserve privileges for people who are like them, arouse a threat response in employees who are not in their circle.  Fairness is served by transparency.  Leaders who share information in a timely manner can keep people engaged and motivated even in times of organizational stress (e.g., reduced budgets, changes in organizational structure, in leadership, etc.).
David Rock puts the importance of SCARF like this:  “If you are a leader, every action you take and every decision you make either supports or undermines the perceived levels of status, certainty, ambiguity, relatedness, and fairness in your enterprise.  …  Just as the animal brain is wired to respond to a predator before it can focus attention on the hunt for food, so is the social brain wired to respond to dangers that threaten its core concerns before it can perform other functions. … Humans cannot think creatively, work well with others, or make informed decisions when their threat responses are on high alert.”
So, neuroleadership represents a set of tools and behaviors that you can begin to put into your practice today to make yourself, your team, and your organization better.  Won’t you take a step in that direction?
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.
David Rock, Managing with the Brain in Mind, Strategy+Business, August 27, 2009.
Manie Bosman, Neuroleadership:  How Your Brain Fights for Social Survival in the Workplace,  Strategic Leadership Institute.
Manie Bosman, SCARF:  Lead in a Way that Will Engage People’s Minds,  Strategic Leadership Institute.
Hilary Scarlett and Mike Pounsford, Neuroscience and organizational change – providing the evidence, Melcrum.