SCARFing Down Fear
By Dave Blum

Are you a scarf person?  It’s all right.  No judgement here.
To be honest, I’m not big on scarves, myself.  I find them to be hot and scratchy, plus they cover up my long, elegant neck.  😊

I wore a scarf to work today, however, because S-C-A-R-F is a useful acronym for exploring today’s topic:  neuroscience and leadership.

SCARF stands for the following five social triggers:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

The SCARF model of social behavior was created by David Rock, an expert in the neuroscience of leadership.

Mr. Rock concluded that our brains are inherently attuned to dangerous social stimuli.

When we feel safe, our frontal cortex kicks in and we can think and make decisions better.  We engage, we collaborate better and we perform better overall

By contrast, when we feel threatened, our frontal cortex is deprived of oxygen and glucose, our amygdala kicks in, and our thinking gets muddled. Our minds get triggered and problem solving goes out the window.

To help you visualize these triggers more clearly, let me take you back to October 2019.   I was coordinating a big teambuilding treasure hunt for the Cincinnati Bengals football team, with over 500 people in attendance.  As the leader of the event (my biggest ever), I had to wear a lot of different hats including:   location scouter, clue writer, hunt facilitator and others.  To add even more complexity, I also needed to coordinate a 20-30 volunteers, there to help me out by manning tables, handing out materials, taking photos, giving hunt participants performance challenges, etc.  As someone used to running the show by myself, the Lone Ranger of event management, getting the “project manager/team leader” roll stimulated my amygdala like crazy, triggering all of my SCARF reactions as follows:

— Status Trigger:  “How will my reputation as an experienced teambuilding trainer suffer if I blow this event?  What if I accidentally insult my facilitators and diminish their status?”

–Certainty Trigger:  “I can’t predict the future!   Who knows if my volunteers are going to do what I asked them to do?  I can’t be everywhere at once.  There’s just no knowing if our hunt participants will enjoy the event.  There’s no certainty anyone will even show up!”

–Autonomy Trigger:  “The Bengals’ management sure has a lot of their own ideas for this event.  Why don’t they just see me as the professional I am and stop meddling with my autonomy?!!”

–Relatedness Trigger:  “I really want this hunt activity to build community, connection and safety.  But what if things get too competitive, and people start to see each other as enemies?  What if no one likes ME?”

And finally:
–Fairness Trigger:  “It’s not fair that I have keep all these balls in the air alone.  It’s not fair that my volunteers are all inexperienced college students. It’s not fair that I couldn’t bring over my whole staff. It’s not fair that we only have 90 minutes for this event!”

In spite of my SCARF triggers, the program goes well.   As for my volunteers, they did absolutely great, performing their tasks with aplomb.
Did their SCARF triggers get activated?  You’d have to ask them yourself.
ALL I know is that my own mind fears were definitely triggered…particularly around status and certainty.

Leading is difficult, but it can be so rewarding as well.   Where else do you get such an opportunity for self growth, skill development AND brain awareness.

The trick in situations like this is to manage your SCARF – to be aware of your social triggers enough that you can keep your frontal cortex at least a little bit ahead of your amygdala.

I hope I’ve given you something to WRAP your minds around today!
I’m going to go scarf down a snack now.

–Dave Blum