March 1, 2024

Corner Office: NeuroLeadership Institute’s Chief, on Shared Goals

Q. You’ve developed an acronym — SCARF — to better explain people’s behavior, particularly at work. Can you explain it?

A. It’s really a summary of what motivates us, the things we feel most passionately about, both positively and negatively, that are driving our behavior all the time. They’re almost like the primary colors of intrinsic motivation.

So, simply put, the brain categorizes everything into one of two categories: threat or reward. We’re driven unconsciously to stay away from threat. We’re driven unconsciously to go toward reward. This decision about threat or reward happens five times every second. It’s very subtle. We’re making this decision about everything good or bad all the time.

There’s been a ton of research in the last 10 years or so that shows that things that create the strongest threats and rewards are social. And social threats and rewards activate what’s called the brain’s primary threat-and-reward center, which is actually the pain-and-pleasure center. This was a big surprise, to see that someone feeling left out of an activity, for example, would activate the same regions as if they had put their hand on a hot plate.

So it’s not just a metaphor that these social feelings are sort of like pain. They use the same network in the brain as pain. But they also use the same network as pleasure, which is why we get so addicted to social media. It’s almost like chocolate. It’s this reward that now we’ve made easily accessible.

Q. I’ve heard a lot of C.E.O.’s say that early experiences with bad bosses created “scar tissue” for them that had a big impact on their leadership style.

A. There are a couple of quirks of social pain and pleasure. One is that social pleasure, especially, is the gift that keeps on giving. But if your boss disses you in front of a team, every time you remember that for the rest of your life, you feel the pain again. That’s scar tissue.

Q. So what does the SCARF acronym stand for?

A. It stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

Status is literally your perception of where you are in the pecking order around you, and it’s a feeling of being better than or worse than others. We feel uncomfortable until we work out our status with people. We are more comfortable and we’re more effective when there’s a clear status arrangement between people. When we feel a higher status, we get a slight reward. When we feel lower status, we get a strong threat. The challenge is that if somebody continuously fights for high status, all the other people around them might be getting a strong threat response.

One of the challenges with management is you’ve got very smart people who are high status, and they like to feel smart. They give lots of feedback to everyone else about what they should be doing better, and other people take that as a threat. People react to a performance review as if someone is saying your life is in danger. And the pushback is real. People will push back so intensely because they experience a strong nonconscious threat response. It’s the same mechanism that makes people argue to be right even when they know they’re wrong.

Certainty is a constant drive for the brain. We saw this with Hurricane Sandy. The feeling of uncertainty feels like pain, when you can’t predict when the lights will come back on and you’re holding multiple possible futures in your head. That turns out to be cognitively exhausting. And the more we can predict the future, the more rewarded we feel. The less we can predict the future, the more threatened we feel. As soon as any ambiguity arises in even a very simple activity, we get a threat response. So we are driven to create certainty.

This is challenging in the context of work. When the boss walks in the room, they create a status threat, but they also create a certainty threat because they often create all sorts of change, all sorts of chaos, and you don’t know what’s coming next. But many organizations are taking an open-book-management approach, making all their financials available to everyone. I think there’s a lot of power in increasing people’s sense of certainty and reducing the inherent uncertainty that can happen in an organization.

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