5 Ways Your Brain is Hijacking Your Ability to Lead


While leading a recent teambuilding program, I found myself feeling a little muddled, foggy, and confused. My first question to myself was, “What did I have for lunch? Did I eat some gluten by mistake?” (I’m sensitive to wheat).

“Nope, all I had was a salad. So what’s going on?”

According to David Rock, Co-Founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, the answer might just be my “scarf”.

Okay, to be clear, I’m not talking about a piece of clothing. Mr. Rock’s SCARF model of social behavior postulates that there are five social triggers which interfere with our ability to think clearly, to solve problems and to collaborate smoothly with others. In short, when any of 5 social triggers are activated negatively, our brains misfire; problem solving goes out the window!

These five triggers are as follows:
1) Status
2) Certainty
3) Autonomy
4) Relatedness
5) Fairness



When our brains are stimulated positively – when we feel safe and secure — our prefrontal cortex holds sway and we can engage with others thoughtfully and skillfully. By contrast, when we feel threatened, our amygdala – associated with fight or flight – kicks in, and we become less likely to solve complex problems. In such a state, we’re in fact much more likely to make mistakes.


Let’s look at these five brain triggers more closely.


1) Status is defined as “relative importance to others”. It includes pecking order and seniority. Our sense of status goes up when we feel superior to someone; we even get a hit of dopamine. By contrast, according to Rock, being left out of a social situation lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain. Arguments can feel like a status threat, as can negative feedback from one’s supervisor.

2) Certainty is our ability (or inability) to predict the future. The brain likes patterns. When we don’t know, say, our boss’ expectation, our brains misfire. When our lives have too much change (and not enough certainty), it can very difficult for us to think clearly and to solve problems.

3) Autonomy is the sensation of having choices, the perception that we have control. When we feel like we have control over our environment, we feel rewarded. When we feel powerless and pushed around, we experience a strong threat response.

4) Relatedness involves whether you feel “in” or “out” of a social group. As social creatures, we humans love our tribes. We require safe, human contact. Meeting someone unknown can feel very unsafe, generating a threat response that muddles our thinking. Getting cast out of or marginalized from the group can feel very threatening indeed.

5) Fairness speaks to fair, equitable exchanges. These exchanges can be monetary, of course, but also informal and social. If your boss has a different set of rules for one person vs. another, that feels unfair. If management is making cuts one place but not another, that too feels unfair, and your thinking process suffers.


So what can we do to stimulate our brain triggers positively, reducing the threat response and thereby freeing up our best thinking?
Rock suggests a few simple steps:


Status: Allow people to give themselves feedback on their own performance. Provide opportunities for people to be learning and improving. Provide positive feedback, privately as well as publicly. Shift the focus from quantity to quality of work.

Certainty: Make implicit concepts more explicit, like how long a meeting will run. State clear objectives at the start of discussions. During times of restructuring, provide a specific date when people will know more information. Provide clear expectations.

Autonomy: Give people options rather than telling them, “Here’s what you have to do.” Provide self-directed learning portals, where employees can design their own learning curriculum. Allow people to set up their own desks and organize their own workflow.

Relatedness: Find safe ways for people to connect. Set up buddy systems, mentoring and coaching programs. Small groups feel safer than large groups, especially for introverts.

Fairness: Increase transparency around business issues. Establish clear expectations, ground rules and expectations. Allow teams to identify their own rules.


In summary: Wrap your head around your SCARF! Your brain (and your team) will thank you for it


Listen in as Dave Blum, Founder of Dr. Clue, discusses his own SCARF experience: