David RockEver wonder why, in the rational world of business and management, emotions get the best of us? Working relationships, teamwork and management all are human endeavors, of course. But we are often still surprised when a meeting goes nowhere, a quick phone call turns into a 30-minute discussion, a feedback session goes off the rails or a couple of coworkers make life miserable for everyone else.

Clues to these and other workplace reactions can be found in the findings of brain science, says David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work. Co-founder and director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, Rock first immersed himself in neuroscience to better understand moments of insight. He then wondered how the biology of the brain drives and informs our behavior at work — and how knowledge of the brain can boost our effectiveness.

One key finding is that “the brain is social,” says Rock. “A huge amount of human behavior is driven, largely unconsciously, by the desire to minimize social danger and maximize social rewards.”

Five social factors are processed by the brain in the same way it processes issues of physical survival. Taken together, they make up the SCARF model that Rock has developed for understanding and managing emotions at work:

Status. Why is my importance relative to others?
Certainty. How well am I able to predict the future, see what’s coming?
Autonomy. Do I have a sense of control over events?
Relatedness. Am I safe with others? Are people around me friend or foe?
Fairness. Do I perceive fair exchanges between people?

In Your Brain at Work, Rock explains how SCARF can play out in a positive way:

“Think about what it feels like when you interact with someone who makes you notice what’s good about yourself (raising your status); who is clear with his expectations of you (increasing certainty); who lets you make decisions (increasing autonomy); who connects with you on a human level (increasing relatedness); and who treats you fairly. You feel calmer, happier, more confident, more connected and smarter. You are able to process richer streams of information about the world, which feels like the world has gotten bigger. Because this experience feels so good, you want to spend time with this person and help them any way you can.”

When some or all of the SCARF domains are threatened, people become anxious, react defensively or withdraw. Not the most productive way to hold a meeting, coach a direct report, solve a problem or seek innovative ideas.

By being aware of your own social reactions (Is my status threatened? Am I an outsider?), you can make choices about your thoughts, words and actions. And when you are alert to other people’s emotional states, you can see how elements of the SCARF can improve conversations and, over time, improve relationships and productivity.

Ways to use SCARF in everyday conversations could include:

  • Giving encouragement or appreciation (increasing sense of status).
  • Level the field: “I’m not doing so well at this today” or “I made a mistake” (increasing sense of status).
  • Making implicit things explicit. Clarify your objectives, for example (increasing certainty).
  • Let people know when they are making the decision (increasing autonomy) and when they are not (increasing certainty).
  • Ask others for their solutions rather than jumping in with your own solutions or ideas (increasing autonomy).
  • Change how you phrase an idea. “Would you be willing to do this?” rather than, “I want you to do this.” “Is it ok if we focus on this right now?” (increasing autonomy).
  • Share a personal story or information that humanizes you (increasing relatedness).
  • Support “water-cooler conversations” – or the digital equivalent (increasing relatedness).
  • Let people know, “I’m having the same conversation with everyone on the team” (increasing fairness).
  • Consider making “fair trades” regarding time, projects and how work gets done (increasing fairness).

“When you are able to meet people’s social needs, the alarm bells in their heads start to quiet down,” says Rock. “This allows you a better chance of focusing their attention in the direction you want and generate the interest and input you really need to get the work done.”

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