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


The latest brain research teaches us more about how we humans react. In Neuro-leadership, knowledge from neuroscience is applied in the field of leadership, which provides new explanations for people's resistance to change ...

David Rock (an authority on NeuroLeadership) has published several articles in the field of Neuro-Leadership. One of these are "SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others" which presents new explanations on why change so often arouses resistance.

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!

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 exchanges between people

You can read more about David Rock, the SCARF model and a longer excerpt of the article by clicking here.
The original article can be accessed in its entirety by clicking here.
1. Status
Status is about relative importance, "pecking order" and hierarchies. We humans experience status in relation to others, which in many ways affects our mental processes. Our self-perceived status is raised when we feel "better than" another person, which activates the brain's reward circuits. A study showed that increased status had the same effect as an unexpected financial contribution. Winning a swimming competition, a card game or an argument feels good, probably because the win is related to a feeling of increased status and the activation of the reward circles that this entails.
To be aware of the feeling of threatened status
At the same time, a feeling of deteriorating status can generate a strong threat response. Studies have shown that deteriorating status by being excluded from an activity activates the same areas of the brain that are activated in physical pain.
  • It can be surprisingly easy to inadvertently threaten someone's sense of status. Such a threat can arise as a result of a hint of someone's inefficiency, but also of advice or instructions that are perceived as unjustified. For many people, the question "may I give you some feedback?" evoke the same emotions as hearing fast steps behind them at night.
  • In change projects where individuals or groups may experience a deteriorating status - for example by losing their place in the management group, gaining less importance, the opportunity for influence or professional reputation - one can expect more resistance.
  • As a change leader, you should take this risk seriously by acting in a way that reduces the feeling of status threat.

2. Certainty
The brain is a machine that recognizes patterns and is constantly trying to predict what will happen next. It always wants to know exactly what is happening because certainty enables predictability. Without predictability, the brain is forced to use much more resources (including the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex or prefrontal cortex) to process every moment.
To pay attention to the feeling of reduced certainty
The slightest uncertainty generates an error response in the orbital cortex (OFC), which forces the attention from the original focus towards what is perceived as wrong.
  • When we experience that someone does not tell the whole truth or acts inconsistently, it leads to uncertainty, which in turn can activate such an error response in the orbital cortex. It's like the flashing printer icon when the paper is stuck - until it's loose it's hard to focus on anything else.
  • Greater uncertainty, such as not knowing what is expected of one or if one's job is threatened, can trigger a much stronger reaction.
  • Change management is largely about increasing the feeling of certainty, in contexts where the uncertainty is great.

3. Autonomy
Autonomy is about independence and choice - the notion that you have control over your own existence. Experiencing increased autonomy is rewarding. Many studies show a strong connection between the experience of control and well-being. Research has shown, among other things, that the degree of autonomy affects how people handle stress. Inevitable or uncontrollable stress can be extremely destructive, while if you experience the same stress as optional, it becomes much less destructive.

To be aware of the feeling of reduced autonomy
Working in a group automatically means less autonomy. In well-functioning groups, this potential threat can be counteracted by increased status, predictability and belonging, but since the threat to autonomy is always just below the surface, it is a risk factor to be aware of.
  • A restriction of one's autonomy, for example when one experiences a lack of control or feels controlled in detail, can trigger a powerful threat response.
  • Changes announced from above or the statement "Do this - now" can therefore trigger powerful threats.
  • People can leave successful careers for significantly lower paid jobs, because they value increased autonomy / independence.

4. Relatedness
Relatedness is about determining whether others belong to the social group or not. If someone is a friend or foe. Cohesion is a driving force behind behaviors in many types of groups - both sports teams and organizations with a silo mentality. It is natural for humans to form "tribes" where they experience a sense of belonging. The need to include and exclude from the group is probably a natural consequence of the fact that for millions of years we lived in small communities, where strangers were associated with problems and therefore should be avoided.

Determining whether someone is a friend or an enemy goes fast and affects brain function. For example, we process information from people we perceive to be “like us” with the same circuits used for our own thoughts, while we use other circuits for someone who is perceived as an enemy. When someone is perceived as a competitor, our ability to feel empathy also decreases significantly.
To be aware of the feeling of threatened relatedness
Neurology researcher John Cacioppo talks about the need for safe human contact as a primary driving force, similar to the need for food. Positive social connections are a primary need, at the same time the feeling of threat is part of our automatic reaction to new social contacts.
  • In the absence of such safe social interactions, a threat response is aroused in the body - the feeling of loneliness.
  • Even the encounter with an unknown has a tendency to provoke an automatic threat response.
  • When someone does something unreliable, the most common reaction is to withdraw.
  • Increased globalization highlights the importance of dealing with the threats of lack of cohesion. Cooperation between people from different cultures, who are unlikely to meet in person, can be particularly challenging. The automatic resistance response persists because you do not spend time together. 

In the absence of safe, social interaction, a threat response is activated in the body...

5. Fairness
Studies show that fair exchanges provide an inherent sense of reward, independent of other factors. Unfair exchanges in turn generate a powerful threat response. This can lead to activation of the insular lobe, the part of the brain that is involved in strong emotional expressions - for example, disgust. People can be driven as far as sacrificing their lives to correct perceived injustices.

To be aware of the feeling of injustice
People who perceive others as injustice feel no empathy for their pain. In some cases, punishing unjust people can even generate a sense of reward.
  • A sense of injustice can easily trigger a threatening response. The following statements are examples of how employees may react to the threat of justice:
    • "He has a different set of rules for Mike and Sally than for the rest of us."
    • "Management says we have to make cuts, but our sales department supports the other departments and they do not have to get rid of staff."
    • "There's a lot of talking about 'values' but why doesn't top management walk the talk?".
  • The lack of clear basic rules, expectations and objectives can all lead to situations that are perceived as unfair.
  • Wage differences in large organizations are a challenging issue. Many employees are deeply dissatisfied with seeing others work about as much and at the same time earn a hundred times more.