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January – June 2018

Brain-based behaviours: Leading with SCARF in mind

  • Dr Dorrian Aiken
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Insights, Leadership
16 minutes to read


Article written by Dr Dorrian Aiken

In 2011, in preparation for the launch of the newly designed Certificate in Neuroleadership, USB-ED at the University of Stellenbosch Business School invited Dr David Rock to train a small group in the use of his SCARF model, and I was fortunate enough to attend. Rock described how he had coined the term neuroleadership in 2007 on the premise that neuroscience research was invaluable to leadership development if only lay people had access to its unfolding revelations. Indeed, neuroscience has become ‘one of the fastest growing areas of contemporary science’, according to Rock and his two colleagues, Al Ringleb and Chris Ancona, in an article they wrote for NeuroLeadership Journal in 2012 (NeuroLeadership in 2011 and 201). They added: ‘In the five years since its introduction in 2008, SCARF has become a widely discussed model in management circles, including being highlighted as one of the ‘Best Ideas of 15 Years’ by Strategy + Business magazine.’ The success of the SCARF model, an outcome of Rock’s doctoral research, is evidenced in the significant organisational following it has attracted globally.

Through our social interactions we literally change one another’s brains, for better or worse.

Rock has drawn heavily on limbic brain research data to create his SCARF model. The acronym SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness ‒ five key triggers that activate the limbic brain, either positively or negatively, in our relationship with others. The limbic brain enables us to interpret the inner world of another person, an enhanced survival strategy that would not have been part of a dinosaur’s reptilian brain skill set, for example. We are conditioned to react in the interests of survival to any perceived threat. In its imperative to ensure humans’ survival, the limbic brain defaults to fight or flight in under a fifth of a second, 24 hours a day.

A few years ago, David Rock and Christine Cox observed that: ‘People are acutely sensitive to their social status, that is, their importance relative to others, and tend to be accurate judges of where they fall on the social ladder’ (SCARF in 2012: Updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 4, 129-142). Any slight to our status, for example, will initiate a flight or fight response precipitated by the release of cortisol and adrenalin into our systems. Across numerous species, status has been shown to be a critical factor in general health and survival. In the training sessions with Rock, I was surprised and dismayed to find how conscious I was of status during the course of an ordinary day: from high-status annoyance with cavalier taxis pushing in on the roads, to low-status feelings of being drably dressed in the company of chic friends at a birthday breakfast.

SCARF’s contribution to leadership development (a core theme in business school curricula) is in highlighting the link between understanding the brain and understanding people. Through our social interactions we literally change one another’s brains, for better or worse. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon in their 2000 work, A General Theory of Love, stated: ‘… because we change one another’s brains through limbic revision, what we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life’. The implication for leadership is that for an organisation to flourish, positive relational skills are as important as technical skills.

To illustrate how SCARF can be negatively activated: I was involved in a leadership development coaching project in an organisation. Halfway through the project, I learned that the organisation was under threat of a proposed merger. The merger talks collapsed at the eleventh hour, but until that time, all of the five responses described by Rock had been negatively triggered. The status of the managing director and his executive managers was undermined by the very much bigger fish they might have had to swim with in a completely different and hostile sea; there was no certainty about either the fate of all the employees or the timelines involved; autonomy to lead the company into the future was suspended; there was little chance of being able to relate empathetically to the key players in the proposed merger; and above all, the secrecy, lack of information and sudden prospect of a possible bleak future felt very unfair. Being changed by others usually feels like a threat. The prospect of change, unless well managed and skilfully led, can push all the SCARF buttons in a negative way.

As long as we are pumping cortisol and adrenalin into our bloodstream in reaction to perceived threats, we are likely to react in the interests of self-protection – a knee-jerk reaction in response to how we are feeling.

Another example of the negative side of SCARF can be found in South Africa’s distant and more recent history. With its long colonial past transitioning into apartheid and, since 1994, ever-widening state of inequality, the country is now home to millions of people of all races who are likely to (at least at times) see all five SCARF aspects in a negative light. For example, for decades the status of black citizens has been undermined, while today white citizens may also feel that their status is threatened. The future feels uncertain. People’s sense of autonomy has been undermined, with widespread feelings of powerlessness in the face of entrenched poverty and corruption. South Africans often feel sadly adrift in their capacity to relate to one another, and for many (of all persuasions) life simply does not feel fair.

The SCARF model’s popularity as a means of creating awareness and building relational competencies in leaders and managers is no doubt its accessibility – its language is non-academic and its various tenets are easy to identify with, whether on the shop floor or in the boardroom. Most important is the fact that its five triggers are immediately recognisable through practical experience. Each of us can relate to a memory of feeling slighted ‒ perhaps we were interrupted while trying to say something at a meeting or maybe we were overlooked for a place in the team. We all know the unsettling experience of uncertainty, like not having a solution to a problem or losing our way in a strange part of town. Ask any group of employees if anyone has been micro-managed and witness the emotional response from those who have had their autonomy throttled.

As long as we are pumping cortisol and adrenalin into our bloodstream in reaction to perceived threats, we are likely to react in the interests of self-protection – a knee-jerk reaction in response to how we are feeling. The physiological consequence is restricted blood flow to the neocortex ‒ which is the brain responsible for logical sequencing, symbolic thinking, pattern-making and planning ‒ and increased blood flow to the limbic brain. So, quite literally, we cannot think clearly when we are charged with emotion. Have you ever been lost for words? When we are gripped by intense emotion – anger, shock or humiliation – the symbolic language-forming, logical, pattern-making brain is overwhelmed by the powerful limbic brain neuro-chemical response which upsets our ability to think rationally. Conversely, a positive boost to our status, like receiving a compliment and feeling valued, releases the feel-good hormones – dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins ‒ which promote more evenly balanced activity in the brain. According to Rock, a balance of dopamine (which induces feelings of pleasure and relaxation) and norepinephrine (which induces alertness) is ideal for the kind of creative, focused thinking that drives high performance.

The research underpinning the SCARF model helps us to understand the ways in which our brains function when confronted with differences in others. This is particularly important when leaders have to manage diversity. Whether we are reacting to differences in race, gender, ethnic group, sexual orientation or personality style, the research on human brain activity indicates that our limbic brains are programmed to treat any difference as a potential threat to survival. The relationship button in the SCARF model flicks the limbic brain onto red alert, and cortisol and adrenalin pump into the blood stream. The good news is that we can choose to intervene in triggered fight or flight responses. In 1994 Jon Kabat-Zinn said: ‘Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges from paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.’

The concept of positive and negative triggers in relationships, which in turn are enhanced by each person’s own experiential awareness, is the reason that the SCARF model is so effective.

Being consciously aware (using the SCARF model) of our limbic brain responses gives us choices in how to intervene in a triggered response. SCARF principles suggest that nothing is more important for all levels of leadership today than self-reflection and mindfulness if leaders are to develop awareness of their own thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, cultivating mindfulness of self and others is sustainable only if it is practised daily so that it becomes an embedded skill induced by experiential learning and repeated effort.

Some years ago, research psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz (in conversation with Rock) challenged the notion of some neuroscientists that the complex, continuous interaction within our brain, much of which is below the level of conscious awareness, suggests that we do not have free will. Schwartz maintained, on evidence, that in fact we might not always have free will but we certainly do have free won’t – the mindful ability to contradict, in a fraction of a second, a knee-jerk reaction, which allows a more considered response. Learning to master such new behaviours is a process of neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of all of us to learn, or unlearn and relearn; with the caveat being that constant practice is necessary.

The relational skills required to engage others positively through the mindful awareness of the SCARF model are well within the capability of most normally functioning adults. Indeed, nothing could be more important for leaders to master. According to recent research conducted by Lisa Feldman Barrett, working and living in the presence of constantly belittling words and negative body language can cause irreversible damage to the functioning of our immune system. So what should we encourage leaders and managers to do?

To begin with, we can encourage them to recognise the importance of giving affirmation in social contexts. Affirm the status of all. When status is affirmed, the capacity for mindfulness and self-critical awareness is enhanced. Provide certainty by communicating frequently and inviting questions to check common understanding. Build autonomy by helping people to develop their own insights by asking good questions, by challenging and by giving affirmation. Build relationships by establishing trust that is based on consistency, timely feedback and positive engagement. Be aware that strong leadership needs to work consciously against the way the brain wants to function ‒ that is, to find solutions for others, to solve the problem! Ensure fairness. Be willing to listen without defensiveness to others’ experiences of unfairness.

The SCARF model, and the enthusiastic welcome it has received from organisations, shows that we are on a path towards new theoretical frameworks for, and new approaches in, leadership development. Given what we now know about the brain, the focus should clearly be on building positive relationship skills. To this end, the concept of positive and negative triggers in relationships, which in turn are enhanced by each person’s own experiential awareness, is the reason that the SCARF model is so effective.

The NeuroLeadership Institute, established by Rock and a number of colleagues in 2008, has made its findings accessible to the general public in many journal articles, offering insights, tools and techniques in the application of neuroscience findings to leadership and organisations.

Dr Dorrian Aiken is a visiting faculty member at the University of Stellenbosch Business School where she lectures on Leadership Development and Organisational Development. She is a Master Integral Coach™ and she consults widely in the field of coaching, organisational transformation and leadership development.

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