If the manager gives rise to threatening signals, the employees cannot deliver. They only have one thing in focus - and it is the tiger that attacks them. They end up in a state of stress and get tunnel vision.

Marie Ryd - science journalist,

former researcher at Karolinska Institute, Stockholm


The latest brain research gives us many new answers on how we humans react. When you in Neuroleadership try to apply knowledge from neuroscience in the field of leadership, you get, for example, new explanations for people's reactions to change ...

David Rock (an authority in NeuroLeadership *) has published several articles in the field of Neuro-Leadership.
[* The website Psychology Today presents David Rock as a thought leader in the field of coaching and the one who coined the term NeuroLeadership. David Rock holds a so-called "professional doctorate" in Leadership Neuroscience, is a co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and is a representative of the publication NeuroLeadership Journal]

One of these is "SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others" which presents new explanations for why change so often arouses resistance.

According to Rock, the SCARF model is a summary of important discoveries in neuroscience about how people interact and react in social contexts and rest on three central ideas:
  • The brain often responds to social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards (Lieberman, & Eisenberger, 2009).
  • The threat reaction is both more common and more intense and must often be actively reduced in social interaction (Baumeister et al, 2001).
  • In general, the ability to make decisions, solve problems and cooperate as a result of threats deteriorates and improves as a result of reward (Elliot, 2008).
The SCARF model is built around the five domains that neuroscience has shown can activate the same reward and threat system as real rewards and physical threats:
  1. Status is about relative importance to others
  2. Certainty is about being able to predict the future
  3. Autonomy gives a sense of control over events
  4. Relatedness gives a feeling of security with others - that they are friends rather than enemies
  5. Fairness is a concept of justice in exchanges between people
When we experience social threats, the brain reacts in the same way as when it experiences a lack of basic things such as food, water or security. When the brain enters a state of threat, we find it difficult to concentrate on anything else. The brain's analytical and creative system is simply shut down - an important insight to carry with you for someone who is going to drive change!

Below is a translation of parts of the article. You can read the original article in its entirety by clicking here.

Excerpt from "SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others"
by David Rock [NeuroLeadership Journal, No. 1 2008]

While the five domains of the SCARF model appear to be interlinked in many ways, there is also value in separating out and understanding each domain individually. Let’s look now at some of the supporting research for each domain then explore how threats and rewards might be managed in each.
1. Status
Status is about relative importance, ‘pecking order’ and seniority. Humans hold a representation of status in relation to others when in conversations, and this affects mental processes in many ways. The brain thinks about status using similar circuits for processing numbers. one’s sense of status goes up when one feels ‘better than’ another person. in this instance the primary reward circuitry is activated, in particular the striatum, which increases dopamine levels. one study showed that an increase in status was similar in strength to a financial windfall. Winning a swimming race, a card game or an argument probably feels good because of the perception of increased status and the resulting reward circuitry being activated.
The perception of a potential or real reduction in status can generate a strong threat response. eisenberger and colleagues showed that a reduction in status resulting from being left out of an activity lit up the same regions of the brain as physical pain.
Reducing status threat
it can be surprisingly easy to accidentally threaten someone’s sense of status. A status threat can occur through giving advice or instructions, or simply suggesting someone is slightly ineffective at a task. Many everyday conversations devolve into arguments driven by a status threat, a desire to not be perceived as less than another. When threatened, people may defend a position that doesn’t make sense, to avoid the perceived pain of a drop in status. In most people, the question ‘can i offer you some feedback’ generates a similar response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night. Performance reviews often generate status threats, explaining why they are often ineffective at stimulating behavioral change. if leaders want to change others’ behavior, more attention must be paid to reducing status threats when giving feedback. one way to do this is by allowing people to give themselves feedback on their own performance.
Increasing status reward
organizations know all about using status as a reward and many managers feel compelled to reward employees primarily via a promotion. This may have the unfortunate side effect of promoting people to the point of their incompetence. The research suggests that status can be increased in more sustainable ways. For example,
  • People feel a status increase when they feel they are learning and improving and when attention is paid to this improvement. This probably occurs because individuals think about themselves using the same brain networks they use for thinking about others. For example, when beating one’s own best time at a task or sporting activity, the reward circuitry from a sense of being ‘better than’ is activated, but in this case, the person one is ‘better than’ is oneself in the past. 
  • Status can go up when people are given positive feedback, especially public acknowledgment.
  • Finally, status is about one’s relative position in a community of importance such as a professional group or social club based on what is valued. While society, especially advertising and the media, would have people spend money in order to be ‘better than others’, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Status can be increased without cost to others or an effect on relatedness. As well as playing against oneself, one can also change the community one focuses on, as when a low level mailroom clerk becomes the coach of a junior baseball team. or, one can change what is important, for example deciding that the quality of one’s work is more important than the quantity of one’s work.
2. Certainty
The brain is a pattern-recognition machine that is constantly trying to predict the near future. For example, the motor network is useless without the sensory system. To pick up a cup of coffee, the sensory system, sensing the position of the fingers at each moment, interacts dynamically with the motor cortex to determine where to move your fingers next. Your fingers don’t draw on fresh data each time; the brain draws on the memory of what a cup is supposed to feel like in the hand, based on expectations drawn from previous experiences. if it feels different, perhaps slippery, you immediately pay attention. The brain likes to know the pattern occurring moment to moment, it craves certainty, so that prediction is possible. Without prediction, the brain must use dramatically more resources, involving the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex, to process moment-to-moment experience.
even a small amount of uncertainty generates an ‘error’ response in the orbital frontal cortex (oFC). This takes attention away from one’s goals, forcing attention to the error.
If someone is not telling you the whole truth, or acting incongruously, the resulting uncertainty can fire up errors in the oFC. This is like having a flashing printer icon on your desktop when paper is jammed – the flashing cannot be ignored, and until it is resolved it is difficult to focus on other things.
Reducing the threat from uncertainty
Any kind of significant change generates uncertainty. Yet uncertainty can be decreased in many simple ways. This is a big part of the job of managers, consultants and leaders.
  • As people build business plans, strategies, or map out an organization’s structure, they feel increasing levels of clarity about how an organization might better function in the future. even though it is unlikely things ever go as planned, people feel better because certainty has increased. Breaking a complex project down into small steps does the same. 
  • Another key tool involves establishing clear expectations of what might happen in any situation, as well as expectations of desirable outcomes.
Increasing the reward from certainty
Some examples of how increase certainty include
  • making implicit concepts more explicit, such as agreeing verbally how long a meeting will run, or stating clear objectives at the start of any discussion. in learning situations, the old adage is ‘tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them’, all of which increases certainty.
  • The perception of certainty can be increased even during deeply uncertain times. For example, when going through an organizational restructure, providing a specific date when people will know more information about a change may be enough to increase a sense of certainty. 
  • Much of the field of change management is devoted to increasing a sense of certainty where little certainty exists.
3. Autonomy
Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices. An increase in the perception of autonomy feels rewarding. Several studies in the retirement industry find strong correlations between a sense of control and health outcomes. People leave corporate life, often for far less income, because they desire greater autonomy.
A reduction in autonomy, for example when being micro managed, can generate a strong threat response. When one senses a lack of control, the experience is of a lack of agency, or an inability to influence outcomes.
Reducing autonomy threat
Working in a team necessitates a reduction in autonomy. in healthy cultures, this potential threat tends to be counteracted with an increase in status, certainty and relatedness. With an autonomy threat just below the surface, it can be helpful to pay attention to this driver. The statement ‘Here’s two options that could work, which would you prefer?’ will tend to elicit a better response than ‘Here’s what you have to do now’.
Increasing rewards from autonomy
  • Providing significant autonomy in an organization can be difficult. Yet even a subtle perception of autonomy can help, for example by having self-directed learning portals, where employees get to design their learning curriculum, and self-driven human resource systems. Allowing people to set up their own desks, organize their workflow, even manage their working hours, can all be beneficial if done within agreed parameters. Sound policy establishes the boundaries within which individuals can exercise their creativity and autonomy. Sound policy should enable individual point-of-need decision-making without consultation with, or intervention by, leaders. in this regard, sound policy hard-wires autonomy into the processes of an organization.
4. Relatedness
Relatedness involves deciding whether others are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group. Whether someone is friend, or foe. Relatedness is a driver of behavior in many types of teams, from sports teams to organizational silos: people naturally like to form ‘tribes’ where they experience a sense of belonging. The concept of being inside or outside the group is probably a by-product of living in small communities for millions of years, where strangers were likely to be trouble and should be avoided.

in the absence of safe social interactions the body generates a threat response…

The decision that someone is friend or foe happens quickly and impacts brain functioning. For example, information from people perceived as ‘like us’ is processed using similar circuits for thinking one’s own thoughts. When someone is perceived as a foe, different circuits areused. Also,when treating someone as a competitor, the capacity to empathise drops significantly.
Neuroscientist John Cacioppo talks about the need for safe human contact being a primary driver, like the need for food (Cacioppo, 2008). in the absence of safe social interactions the body generates a threat response, also known as feeling lonely. However, meeting someone unknown tends to generate an automatic threat response. This explains why one feels better at a party knowing three people rather than one. Alcohol helps to reduce this automatic social threat response, enabling strangers to communicate more easily, hence its use as a social lubricant the world.
The concept of relatedness is closely linked to trust. One trusts those who appear to be in your group, who one has connected with, generating approach emotions. And when someone does something untrustworthy, the usual response is to withdraw. The greater that people trust one another, the stronger the collaboration and the more information that is shared.
Reducing threats from lack of relatedness
increasing globalization highlights the importance of managing relatedness threats. Collaboration between people from different cultures, who are unlikely to meet in person, can be especially hard work. The automatic foe response does not get diminished by social time together. This response can be mitigated by dedicating social time in other forms. For example, using video to have an informal meeting, or ensuring that people forming teams share personal aspects of themselves via stories, photos or even social-networking sites. in any workplace it appears to pay off well to encourage social connections. A Gallup report showed that organizations that encourage ‘water cooler’ conversations increased productivity.
Increasing the rewards from relatedness
Positive social connections are a primary need; however, the automatic response to new social connections involves a threat. To increase the reward response from relatedness, the key is to find ways to increase safe connections between people. Some examples include setting up clearly defined buddy systems, mentoring or coaching programs, or small action learning groups. Small groups appear to be safer than large groups. The Gallup organizations research on workplace engagement showed that the statement ‘i have a best friend at work’ was central to engagement in their ‘Q12’ assessment (Gallup organization). Perhaps even having one trusting relationship can have a significant impact on relatedness.
5. Fairness
Studies by Golnaz Tabibnia and Matthew Lieberman at uCLA showed that 50 cents generated more of a reward in the brain than $10.00, when it was 50 cents out of a dollar, and the $10 was out of $50. This study and a number of others illustrate that fair exchanges are intrinsically rewarding, independent of other factors. The need for fairness may be part of the explanation as to why people experience internal rewards for doing volunteer work to improve their community; it is a sense of decreasing the unfairness in the world.
Unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response. This sometimes includes activation of the insular, a part of the brain involved in intense emotions such as disgust. unfair situations may drive people to die to right perceived injustices, such as in political struggles. People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished.
Reducing the threat from unfairness and increasing the reward from fairness
A threat response from a sense of unfairness can be triggered easily. The following statements are examples of what employees might say in reaction to a threat to fairness:
  • ‘He has a different set of rules for Mike and Sally than for the rest of us.’
  • ‘Management tell us that we need to lose headcount, but our sales are carrying the other division and they don’t have to cut anyone.’
  • ‘They do all this talk about ‘values’ but it’s business as usual at the top.’
The threat from perceived unfairness can be decreased by increasing transparency, and increasing the level of communication and involvement about business issues. For example, organizations that allow employees to know details about financial processes may have an advantage here.
establishing clear expectations in all situations – from a one-hour meeting to a five-year contract – can also help ensure fair exchanges occur. A sense of unfairness can result from a lack of clear ground rules, expectations or objectives. Allowing teams to identify their own rules can also help. in an educational context, a classroom that creates the rules of what is accepted behavior is likely to experience less conflict. examples of the success of self-directed teams in manufacturing abound (Semler, 1993). Much of what these self-driven teams do is ensure fairness in grass-roots decisions, such as how workloads are shared and who can do which tasks.
The issue of pay discrepancies in large organizations is a challenging one, and many employees are deeply unhappy to see another person working similar hours earning 100 times their salary. interestingly, it is the perception of fairness that is key, so even a slight reduction in senior executive salaries during a difficult time may go a long way to reducing a sense of unfairness.