SCARF The surprising brain science of trust and emotional safety at work

What’s happening inside our brains at work? Are tiny little “micro-aggressions” or “threat responses” preventing us from contributing our best selves? Andreas Abele, president of The Coaching Studio, teaches 21st century approaches to leadership — including a growing focus on neurophysiology and the hidden stuff happening inside our heads. Here’s an edited interview. 

Managing with the Brain in Mind,” by David Rock. “Neuroscience research is revealing the social nature of the high-performance workplace.”

Why are leadership coaches like yourself now putting so much emphasis on neurophysiology and the emotional brain?

I’ve been doing leadership development work for a long time, and I’ve found that understanding how our emotional brains work with respect to engagement can make a huge practical difference for people. It’s a rationale and framework to get leaders thinking differently about engagement at work. 

That term “engagement” has become a big buzzword in HR and organizational circles. Why?

The reason there’s so much interest is: the world of work has become increasingly complex.

In a complex world, engagement becomes dramatically more important for solving adaptive problems.

When a task is repetitive or the challenge is simple, how people feel about the work doesn’t have a dramatic impact. But when groups of people are trying to solve complex, adaptive problems, it’s different. Complex problems are characterized by a diverse set of stakeholders, where there often isn’t a single clear leader, problem definition, or path forward.

In those situations, the only thing that really drives positive outcomes is the degree to which people are engaged. It turns out that a bit of brain science developed by David Rock and others called “SCARF” (which stands for: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness) can help unlock that engagement, because it creates a sense of psychological safety for people.

People need a sense of psychological safety to feel fully creative, collaborative and engaged.

SCARF is what provides that. It allows you to move from processing in the back of your head — which is all about threat response — toward the front of your brain, where you have decision-making, logical reasoning, and all the higher order functions. When you engage people from that point of view, you see a dramatically different ability to solve problems.

Learning about how this works, and what we can do to create an environment where people move from that threat response state towards (as David Rock puts it) a reward state is a huge leadership skill.

A photo by Nicholas Swanson.

You’ve said “status” and “certainty” are the two most important ingredients to focus on. Why?

It’s all about creating psychological safety and not triggering a sense of threat. There’s physical threat and then there’s psychological threat, and the brain processes them both very similarly. It’s a long-standing history; you stand around the campfire in your loincloth beating a drum, but at the same time there’s a part of your brain that is constantly monitoring for threat. Is that rustling in the bushes a saber-toothed tiger about to spring out and eat you? We have a long-standing evolutionary history of threat and how to deal with it.

The challenge is: that same threat response mechanism is constantly operating at work. Am I being slighted? Is someone disrespecting me? Will someone laugh or get mad?

The threats have become psychological rather than physical, but they’re no less real for our brain. There’s tons of tiny little things in the workplace that will generate a threat response. And when that threat response is generated, it’s really hard for us to be creative, come up with new solutions, or perform at the highest level. We’re on our back foot.

When we’re in threat response, we’re literally stuck in the wrong part of our heads.

Psychological threat causes us to operate from a region of the brain (the basal ganglia region, among others) that is responsible for managing repeated behaviors — as opposed to more novel or creative ones.

So what can we do about it, to be better teammates and leaders?

The first thing to do is generate a sense of status or importance for others, especially at the beginning and end of interactions. Authentically remind people that they are important.

“Status,” in this instance, is defined as: the feeling of relative importance we have to the context at handKnowing that helps us become micro-aware of how we’re coming across in our interactions, and to generate a sense of importance for the other person.

You can’t just fake it; it needs to come from an authentic place. But if you can explicitly and purposefully allocate some of your time, at the beginning of your meeting or interaction, to ensure that the other person feels a sense of importance, they will predictably relax.

Saying things like: “Thank you for taking the time, I know you’re really busy.” It’s a small thing, but it’s also the start of the other person feeling, “OK, I’m being valued. I am important. My time is being valued.” And so they start to lean in a little bit.

Then you might say a few things about the importance of your work together. Like: “I really appreciate you, Matt, interviewing me here now, because you’ve talked to a lot of different experts and leaders in this field. I feel that whatever I’m going to share, you’re going to help me put in a context that’s going to be interesting and helpful.”

Faking it or sweet-talking people doesn’t work. But thinking ahead of time: “what is the meaningful true statement for me, that will create a sense of shared importance?” That’s powerful.

What are some common mistakes that trigger the opposite response?

They can be both verbal and non-verbal. Say I’m the boss and I arrive to a meeting 10 minutes late. I drop my book on the table and say something like, “So, what are we talking about again?”

I might as well not show up at all — I’ve just generated a true threat response for everyone in the room! Everyone there has basically been told (non-verbally) that they are not important, and therefore, will be operating from the back of their heads for most of the interaction. It’s a complete waste of time.

Whereas if I’m there five minutes early, and colleagues walk in and I say: “Hey, thanks for coming! I’ve put together a bit of an agenda. We don’t necessarily have to follow it, but I really appreciate that you’re here.” It’s verbal, and it’s non-verbal.

Can you say more about the “certainty” piece? Isn’t it a bit naive to promise it to people, given how chaotic and unpredictable most workplaces actually are?

Certainty, in this context, isn’t defined as outcome certainty. It’s not me saying, “Hey, everything’s going to be fine.” We’re both grown-ups, and we know things may not be fine. It’s not about promising an outcome that counts. It’s about process certainty.

It’s about having a feeling of safety around what is going to happen next. When I have that feeling of safety, I can relax.

Together with feeling important, I am now extremely well-positioned to make a great contribution. So there’s certainty around process from the perspective of understanding next steps, gates, milestones, objectives, values and so on. 

My first job was in HR, and I worked for this great CEO leader who was really well-respected. I bumped into him in the hallway and asked him: “So how do you do it? How are you so well-respected?” He just looked at me, and turned around and said: “You know what? I try to be as predictable as possible.”

That’s what we’re talking about in terms of inter-personal certainty. If you think about the relationship between kids and adults, for example, it turns out that kids form secure attachments with adults who reliably and predictably care for them. In other words: we’d prefer to be with someone where we know what they’re going to do, because it allows us to relax and engage. 

I can create a sense of certainty for others by being mindful about rituals of interaction, or things I do repeatedly, or the ways in which I show up.

What kind of practical impact is the “SCARF” approach having for organizations?

Major organizations are revamping their entire performance management systems based on some of this research. What traditionally happens in performance management is: you’re evaluated on an annual or bi-annual basis, and it usually involves a set of numbers.

We might as well stop right there. More than 80 percent of people are really negative about the performance systems in their organization — because none of it is engaging in any way. It’s the perfect setup to create a threat state. The research shows that both low performers and high performers equally hate that performance system; if I’m a high performer and I get a four-and-a-half out of five, I’m going to be upset that I didn’t get a five. Being evaluated that way creates a lingering effect of disappointment every time it happens.

What’s happening now is that responsibility for performance management is dramatically shifting away from that system, and toward individual managers through high-touch, ongoing conversation about performance.

“Hey, what went right this week? What went wrong this week?” We collect that information and we learn from it, and we have quick cycles around feedback, with a lot more touch-points between the manager and the person on the team.

Some in the business world might argue that being “too nice” makes people ineffective leaders — that success and vision often require acting like a jerk. Like Steve Jobs, for example.

What brain-science would say about that is: independent of the moral / ethical implications, if you’re being a jerk in ways that create a threat response for people, it might still work for you — so long as you have a clearly defined goal and you understand exactly what everybody else needs to do.

But if it’s about solving complex problems together, where there’s multiple stakeholders and not always one clear leader, it’s just not going to work over time. The more complex a problem is, and the more intelligent the people are that you’re dealing with in terms of their awareness of the problem, the more important engagement becomes. 

I’m trying to relate these insights to working open. Sometimes radical transparency or “seeing how the sausage gets made” creates a sense of chaos or uncertainty for people they find unnerving.  

What can often happen in that situation is people come away saying something like: “Well, maybe we shouldn’t share that information or be that transparent the next time around.” We tend to immediately think about the process or the content as the cause. But if we take the SCARF approach, we can instead step back and consider how people felt about the certainty and status aspects of the process.

People need to reach out to members of the group and ask: “So how is this working for you? How do you feel about what’s happening here?” Clarifying those things, and just focusing on the psychological side of the process, can change people’s attitudes dramatically without changing anything in the system.

It’s about investing time in providing status and certainty to participants in the process, throughout the process, at key moments.

They can be collective moments, or they can be individual moments. But if we’re mindful of building in those moments to the process, it makes a huge difference. Is it possible to generate a great, open, transparent culture? Absolutely. And what will help us achieve that goal is: ensuring the interactions between people in our organization, and the interactions between people and our systems, includes sufficient elements of status and certainty. If we can create this baseline in our organizational culture, we’ll begin to see entire teams, departments and organizations become more engaged, creative and better positioned to solve complex problems together.


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