Often, when I’m with someone who is complaining about dysfunction in an organization I tell them that “we’re going to continue to have these problems as long as we insist on employing all of these humans”. Although my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek (which certainly must be an odd phrase to people trying to learn English) there is an underlying truth to my joke.
People are complicated, or as one of my favorite philosophers Jimmy Buffet has said, we’re all fruitcakes and “the cosmic bakers took us out of the oven a little too early”. Whatever your metaphor of choice, people are complicated and unpredictable, which puts leaders in challenging positions since leaders themselves are human also (thus doubling the complexity in every interaction).
While there are a number of models to help us better understand how we tend to think, its rare when I run across one that makes as much sense as SCARF. Let me explain.
SCARF is an acronym to describe “five domains of social experience”, to quote one author, which our brains consider to be so important that it treats them the same way it treats survival issues. That’s right – the same way our brain reacts to threat/reward input governs how our brains react to each of these domains.
The model comes from research covered by David Rock in his book Your Brain At Work. Here are the five domains that must be understood when you’re trying to figure out how a particular human tends to think, including you and I:
We spend considerable time and energy evaluating our status relative to those around us. As a matter of fact, a perceived lack of status can shorten a person’s life span – a topic demonstrated by science but very much in the news these days. Good news: we can elevate our status relative to a former version of ourselves (think about improving your handicap in golf, or changing a behavior). We needn’t step on others to increase our status.
Our brains crave certainty. When we detect uncertainty, our brain goes into an error loop as it struggles to find certainty. I never have forgotten a phrase I heard many years ago: “uncertainty consumes slack resources”. What this meant to me at the time, and this research confirms, is that our need for certainty is so great that when confronted by the lack of it we stop working on important work and dwell on the uncertainty. This is a vital concept for leaders to remember. If someone forced me to describe leadership in one word, I’d be tempted to choose “clarity”.
We want to feel in control of the situation around us. When we feel out of control, we stress. Here was a fascinating revelation for me: a study found that low-level British civil servants had more stress-related health problems than their more senior counterparts did even though the latter group had the more stressful jobs by far. When I think about the stress I felt early in my career when I lacked both Autonomy and Status, the results from that study make sense to me.
We are social animals. We separate the people around us into friend or “possibly-a-foe-be-careful”. Luckily, we live in a time where the stranger in the supermarket is unlikely to attack us and a short conversation is all it takes to move an unknown person into the “friend” camp. We cooperate in tribes and depend upon our fellow tribe members to cooperate with us. In fact, there is a mountain of science which shows that the greatest determinant of happiness in life is the quantity and quality of our social connections. People want to be connected, which explains 20th century bowling alleys and 21st century Facebook – although only one of those give you the opportunity to rent and wear multi-colored community shoes.
Humans are the only species in lab experiments who will harm their own self-interest due to a perceived lack of fairness. Never underestimate a person’s sense of fairness – they may sacrifice their own self-interest for it’s sake.
Leaders – think about the SCARF model when you’re providing feedback to an employee. Know that when you think you’re providing casual feedback, the brain of the feedback recipient is likely sending off all sorts of alarms (with the associated physical effects that our bodies feel when threatened) associated with status, certainty, and perhaps autonomy, relatedness and fairness – or just some subset of those.
Of course this insight isn’t reserved for leaders. It’s useful for all of us. Whether the cosmic bakers did indeed take us out of the oven a little too early or not, the reality is that we are deeply complex and spectacular and wonderful and aggravating and unpredictable. There is no easy way to understand it all, but SCARF helps.