It’s always amusing to see religious insights about human behavior expressed in management-speak, which is happened precisely in The NY Times this past Saturday, in their interview with David Rock, the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. The acronym Mr. Rock uses to describe the in’s and out’s of motivation is SCARF, which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. For those keeping score at home, SCARF is basically shorthand for we mean when we talk about Original Sin, i.e. you could almost substitute Self-Justification for Status, Bondage for Certainty, Control for Autonomy, Exclusivity/Scapegoating for Relatedness, and Judgment for Fairness (I guess SBCESJ doesn’t quite have the same ring). As the research shows, these things are all deeply instinctual–inherited, if you will–and don’t really vary too much depending on context. But again, it’s much more entertaining to hear him phrase these things as if they’re cutting edge discoveries, ht CB:
…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…
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.
[If] Certainty is prediction [then] Autonomy is control. And it’s a very important thing for us to feel a sense of control, so much so that a small stress where you have no control generally is in fact a very big stress. When autonomy goes down, it’s a strong threat. So when the boss walks in the room, they’ve got the final say, so suddenly your autonomy goes down. So now we’re three for three with just the boss walking in the room…
The decision we make about everyone is, “Are you in my ‘in’ group or in my ‘out’ group?’” If you decide that I’m in your “in” group, you process what I’m saying using the same brain networks as thinking your own thoughts. If you decide I’m in your “out” group, you use a totally different brain network. So the very level of unconscious perception has a huge impact based on this decision of: “Is this person similar to me? Are they on my team? Do we have shared goals, or are they in my out group?”
So these are the five domains of SCARF, and they are playing out in every situation, every interaction.
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