Do your team react to your suggestions for change with defensiveness, denial and even anger? Is your performance feedback met with frustrated sighs and stony faces?
You can’t be an effective leader in the workplace without understanding what fundamentally drives your team’s behaviour. In a world where effective teamwork and open communication are essential to success, the SCARF model holds the key to managing groups and improving cooperation.
By reducing social threats and increasing the sense of reward, you can boost your team’s morale, productivity and innovation. But what exactly is the SCARF model, and how can it help you lead your team more effectively?
What is the SCARF Model?
Before we dig deeper into the SCARF model from a leadership perspective, let’s look at the basics.
The SCARF model, posited by David Rock in 2008, seeks to explain why our brains influence us to behave in certain ways. The acronym SCARF stands for:
- Status: How important we are compared to others
- Certainty: How we can predict the future
- Autonomy: How in control we feel of our environment
- Relatedness: How safe we feel with other people
- Fairness: How fairly we perceive exchanges with others to be
To ensure our survival, our brains recoil from threats and embrace rewards concerning our primary needs. So, our ancestors’ brains would trigger an intense flight reaction when encountering a dangerous predator. And the reward of safety in numbers would trigger the pleasure hormone dopamine, motivating our ancestors to form close-knit groups based on trust.
Despite centuries of evolution, this deep-seated system of threat and reward continues to drive our interactions with the world today. Several neuroscience studies, including one by the University of Michigan Medical School, demonstrate that social pain lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain.
The SCARF model explains why we can experience intense emotional reactions to social situations. When your brain interprets negative feedback as a threat to your work status, it releases cortisol that swamps your ability to think logically. On the flip side, receiving praise floods your brain with dopamine as a reward, encouraging you to seek out more.
But exactly how can the SCARF model help you lead more effectively?
How to Apply the SCARF Model to Your Leadership
The SCARF model can revolutionise your leadership ability by reducing threats and increasing rewards in the workplace. Whenever your team feels threatened, morale plummets and communication dries up. But by being prepared and accentuating the positive, you can empower your team to meet their full potential.
How important we feel compared to others is a key driver in our careers. Even just thinking about performance feedback can provoke great stress and defensiveness amongst your team. During appraisals, it’s essential that people don’t feel less valued than others.
An effective way to reduce the threat response is to encourage each person to evaluate themselves first. Maximise their reward reaction by doling out regular praise and entrusting your employees with new responsibilities. And instead of bristling when a team member gives you negative feedback, face up to your knee-jerk fears and thank them for coming to you first.
When we’re working in familiar situations, our brains are free to process complex tasks. But throw something unpredictable into the mix and your brain goes into overdrive to process the change. This leads to fearful reactions, denial and even anger if we perceive this difference as perilous.
You can minimise this threat reaction in your employees by ensuring you transparently and openly communicate any changes. When you share detailed plans and set clear expectations with your team, you are managing their perception of certainty. This feeling of security will trigger a reward response that is key to effective change management.
The less in control we feel of our environment, the more threatened we are. So, if you micromanage everything your team does, you’re robbing them of their chance to shine.
By giving your team choices instead of just laying down the law, they will feel rewarded by your trust. And instead of setting strict rules for what they can and cannot do, outline boundaries in which they can operate. And by regularly delegating work throughout your team, you’re empowering your employees to take responsibility for their workday.
We’re no different from our ancestors in seeking out safety in groups that rely on mutual trust. When we’re interacting positively with others, our brains produce the love hormone oxytocin, increasing these feelings of connection.
Protect the delicate balance of your team by introducing new members with great care and encouraging group activities to strengthen bonds. Remote workers are more likely to struggle with feelings of isolation, which in turn can impact their mental health. So, insist on video meetings with your team and make sure to check on remote employees with regular one-on-ones.
If we perceive something as unfair, it sparks such an overwhelming disgust response in our insular cortex that we feel immediately threatened. But if we see someone act to remove this unfairness, we feel rewarded.
It can be difficult to reduce unfairness in large organisations, such as a perceived disparity in pay or effort. But even small changes to the pay structure or allowing your team to decide on essential rules and guidelines can boost a reward response. And by being as honest and transparent as possible with your team, they will return the favour by being more productive, innovative and open.
Over to You
The SCARF model is a powerful neuro-leadership tool for you to manage perceived threats and rewards in the workplace. By understanding why people react so strongly to seemingly innocuous changes and feedback, you can manage your team’s feelings and motivations.
The most effective way to use the SCARF model is by truly understanding the people around you. After all, not everyone in your team is a carbon copy of the other. An introvert may feel drained by social activities while an extrovert may bristle at being overlooked in a group meeting.
But by applying the SCARF model in a considered and tailored fashion, you can strike directly into the heart of your team’s fearful or defensive reactions. And by improving collaboration and communication, you will unlock your employees’ full potential and increase their resilience to change.
Keen to learn more about how neuro-leadership can help you improve your leadership skills?
Omozua Isiramen is a Certified Life and Executive Neuro-Leadership Coach, who uses emotional mastery and a neuroscience-based approach to empower and prepare clients’ hearts and heads to take the journey from where they are to where they want to be by bravely accessing and optimizing their limitless brain potential.
She works with busy professionals, entrepreneurs, teams and organisations to help them transform stress into performance super fuel and drive greatness from within by becoming brain-friendly leaders with clarity, confidence and courage.
Click here to learn more and to schedule a 30-minute discovery session.