Are the laws of the corporate jungle that far removed from our evolutionary past? Perhaps food and water are not the only rewards we seek; and designations, promotions, pay hikes and perks add to the rewards that pull us toward them. The threats have evolved from the lurking tiger and the poisonous snake to the aggressive boss, competitive peer or even negative performance appraisals. Perhaps mating rights are now expressed as bragging rights.
Our brains too have evolved from purely instinctive automatic behaviours of the basal ganglia to social and emotional responses of the limbic system and the thinking creative problem solving abilities of the neo cortex. There is just one problem. Our brains react with equal intensity to social and physical rewards and threats. They don’t seem to differentiate between the jungle and the city! Priming us for fight and flight in a social situation doesn’t help, it just creates stress and anxiety.
In the SCARF model, David Rock (2008) used the neuroscience of rewards and threats to explain our social interactions. SCARF expands as Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness which is based on these universal needs being met (Reward) or not met (Threat). We move “towards” rewards and run “away” from threats.
In a ‘toward’ state, we are more open to ideas, see more options and collaborate more as our Prefrontal Cortex, or Thinker is dominant and active. We are also willing to take more risks, with the happy chemicals like dopamine and endorphins flooding our system. The strong negative emotions of an ‘away’ state activate our Limbic System or Feeler. Since we cannot think and feel at the same time, in an away state we are less receptive to options, ideas and collaboration. The cortisol or stress hormone makes us averse to risk taking and we disagree more often. Since it was responding quickly to threats that saved us in the jungle, we continue to respond more intensely to threats.
Our interactions with others are strongly affected by these universal needs. For any meaningful communication or interaction, we need to be aware of each other’s SCARF. Most times these needs are operating at an unstated and unconscious level. We are clueless about why some people just put us off or why we collaborate easily with some and just can’t with others. This in turn has major implications on leadership and team management.
Let us look at some typical interactions in the workplace?
Those with a need for Status want to be regarded as important in a group. They want to be given more opportunities and to be acknowledged in public. They can’t perform at their best if this need is not met. They may feel offended if their suggestions are not accepted or their decisions overturned. In a way, they want to be “more equal” than others.
Those with a need for Certainty need a clear road map. Unequivocal guidelines, agendas, rules, reports etc. are important to them. They need predictability and do not like waiting. They find deviations and changes uncomfortable. They want certainty even in outcomes which are not always within their control.
Need for Autonomy translates into a need for choice. There is an aversion to being micro managed, asking for permission and toeing the line. Such people are happier when they are in charge and can decide for themselves. Desiring control but an inability to share it with others could be their Achilles heel.
Need for Relatedness shows up as a need for connection and safety. It is a need to be treated as a friend, not a foe, and a need to be shown some concern and empathy. In a completely task oriented environment without any human touches, such a person feels at a loss and experiences apathy and pain. Wanting to please others may come in the way of effective negotiations. Accolades mean nothing, if they come with aloofness and isolation.
Need for Fairness is exhibited as a need for equality and equal exchanges. Thus, any kind of discrimination creates upset. One appreciates a level playing field, and a perception of justice and fair systems is crucial for a sense of well-being and better performance. Fairness could be a need at a personal level or at a social justice level.
One can see that some of these factors may be inter connected. Thus equal opportunity may satisfy both your need for fairness as well as certainty. Experiencing autonomy and safety in a relationship may also feed your need for status.
Though all these aspects are important, the relative importance of each may vary for different individuals. In an organizational setting, Status and Certainty may function at a more overt level and Fairness at a covert level. Besides, those who want Autonomy may sacrifice some Relatedness and vice versa.
Becoming aware of your own needs and those with whom you interact could greatly increase your effectiveness. If you know that your boss appreciates Certainty, maybe you will pay more attention to your reports and update him/her about your project status. If a colleague has a Status need, you could try acknowledging him some more. For the subordinate who needs greater fairness, you could refrain from jokes they may find offensive. A team member who is high on Relatedness may appreciate a little concern and sensitivity. It’s a small step that goes a long way in cementing better working relationships.
Many times you are stuck in ineffective interactions which affect your productivity and advancement at work. An executive coach can help to create awareness about your SCARF and provide a shift in perspective. He or she can help you to align your SCARF with that of your team or boss, and that could transform your interactions really powerfully. Instead of experiencing resentment and withdrawal, you would understand the dynamics of your interactions. For a free SCARF Self-Assessment, take it at:
Gitanjali Bagchi specializes in creating harmony and equilibrium. She is a life-coach par excellence and has extensive experience in coaching and corporate training. An alumnus of St Xaviers, College and IIM Calcutta, she continues to be a student of life!