Research Paper By Hillik Nissani
(Executive Coach, CYPRUS)
Dr. David Rock coined the term “Neuroleadership” and is the director of the Neuroleadership Institute, a global initiative bring neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science for leadership development.
Dr. David Rock also developed a model called SCARF, which I encountered and find extremely useful as a tool when coaching.
SCARF – Introduction
Social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the need for food and water.
The SCARF model involves five domains of human social experience:
- Status – Status is about relative importance to others
- Certainty – Certainty concerns being able to predict the future
- Autonomy – Autonomy provides a sense of control over events
- Relatedness – Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe
- Fairness – fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people
These five domains activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ sections (and associated networks) of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. In the same manner, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward sections as receiving a monetary reward.
This principle represents the likelihood that when a person encounters a stimulus, their brain will either tag the stimulus as ‘good’ and engages in the stimulus (approach), or their brain will tag the stimulus as ‘bad’ and they will disengage from the stimulus (avoid).
If a stimulus is associated with positive feelings/results or rewards, it will likely lead to an approach response; if it is associated with a negative outcome or punishments, it will likely lead to an avoid response. The response is particularly strong when the stimulus is associated with survival.
This mechanism is one of functions of the Amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. This system reacts before a stimuli reaches conscious awareness and in a way, may hijack our behavior. This means that when the brain identifies a threat, we react in a protective way – by behaving away from the classified threat and / or creating distance between the threatening object and ourselves. While this is part of our survival instinct, and is essential for our survival, it may lead us to demonstrate undesired behaviors that prevent us from achieving our goals and may come in our way to create intimacy and strong relationship with other people – be it in a context of work, friendship or relationships.
SCARF – Application
Many people feel ‘bad’ sometimes. They use different words to describe their situation – “down”, “there is a shadow surrounding me”, “depressed”, “drained”, “lack of energy” and so on.
Most of these people, when asked about why they feel like that, do not know or unable to point a finger on the exact issue that led to this feeling. This leads to a situation in which, not only do they feel “bad”, they are also frustrated from not being to “name” and explain where this feeling is coming from.
The SCARF model and its dimensions allow us to quickly identify the reason behind the undesired feelings and reactions and can be used as an empowering tool to improve the situation.
The SCARF can be applied to oneself, but also to others, making it a great tool to achieve the following:
- Understand your own reactions and those of others
- Better regulate your emotions
- Better communicate your needs to others
- Make choices more suited to your own preferences
I often teach this tool to my coachees and encourage them to use it as part of their routine, both when they ‘feel bad’ or react in a non-constructive manner as well as for understanding other people’s reactions.
Whenever they realize, either by self-observation or by means of getting a feedback from someone that one of the dimensions is threatened, it is possible to identify ways to do one of two – either reduce the threats or increase the rewards.
Here is how it could work.
Map the importance of each dimension by asking – “how important is this for you?”
Ask – “In the current situation, how is dimension impacted?”
Based on the severity of the situation – ask “what can be done to either improve the situation in this dimension, by either reducing the threat or by increasing the reward, or by compensation in other dimensions.
The severity of the situation is high when the dimension is highly important for us and it is greatly impacted by a severe threat and vice versa – low severity happens when the dimension’s importance is low and it is lightly impacted.
Andreas was a high-ranking executive in Bank of Cyprus until March 2013, when a major crisis involving the bank and the whole Cyprus economy led to his dismissal. After a long career in the bank, he found himself at home, unable to land a job that will fit his salary expectations, interest and seniority. He came to me for consultation – with an extremely low self-esteem and on the verge of being depressed.
We analyzed the five dimensions to figure out where he stands and what can be done to help him feel better and improve his situation.
In the first step, we look at the importance of each dimension. Andreas’ marked high the following – Certainty, Status, Relatedness and Autonomy. Fairness was not that critical to him.
We then discussed the impact of the new situation in each of the dimensions and the following was a summary of the discussion.
Status – Adreas’ status was severely hurt. From being a senior executive with many employees reporting to him to an unemployed, forced to retire 43 years old “has been” – this was hurting him a lot. His Status dimension “score” was decreased significantly.
Certainty – Andreas’ future was obscured. While he managed to amass some funds over the years, the future was unclear. He was constantly worried about his ability to resurrect his career given the limited options that were available in Cyprus for business managers like him. Relocating to another country was an option, but that would have been affecting himself as well as his family and he didn’t feel his wife was greatly supportive of such a move. He felt he has very little ability to predict the future or to at least feel comfortable that he could land a proper job anytime soon. His Certainty dimension score was decreased significantly.
Autonomy – Andreas was now at home, controlling his own daily schedule. While he missed the bank’s daily routine, he admitted that the ability to control how his day looks actually felt good. His Autonomy dimension score increased a little.
Relatedness – Andreas found that his close friends and family members were very supportive. None of them criticized him. They all understood it was not his fault and did their best to support him emotionally as well as offered help in whatever they could, however, he didn’t feel like hanging out with them, as it reminded him of his status and that was painful. His wife, while not wanting to relocate, was very understanding and supportive and that was actually very reassuring and comforting. His Relatedness dimension score was more or less the same.
Fairness – Andreas was angry and frustrated. He was always a highly valued manager at the bank. He was well respected and appreciated by his manager (the bank’s CEO), his peers and subordinates. The layoffs were totally not a direct outcome of his own performance and for obvious reasons he felt that what has happened to him was not fair. His Fairness dimension score was decreased significantly.
I then turned to step 3 and asked him what he thinks he can do to improve his situation – either by increasing the reward or decreasing the threats – while looking at the five dimensions. We concluded a session with a task that Andreas took upon himself – to come with a plan to achieve the above. He asked me for some reading materials and more info about the SCARF model and promised to come with a strong action plan when we meet next.
The next session was a week later and Andreas showed up and looked much better. His energy levels were up, he was smiling again and his body language was communicating that he is doing a lot better.
First of all, he told me that he decided to meet with friends again. He said that he picked a couple and went out one night with them to dinner. The camaraderie, the great evening they spent and their support for him filled him up with positive energy. He decided he was not going to stay away from friends, but rather seek the companionship of a few friends that made him feel good with himself. “If these are my friends, and they think highly of me, then I must be worth a lot. It was a good feeling to know that they still admire a lot of things about me” – were his words. His Relatedness dimension score was increasing.
Also, after reading one of the articles he found online about SCARF, he decided apply for the position of the coach his son’s football team in school, which was surprisingly vacant. Andreas was a good player himself and thought that the position could do him service. As a coach, all the kids’ parents were calling him and coming to talk to him about their sons. All of a sudden – he mattered and influenced the lives of quite a few people – kids and their parents that wanted their kids to play… His Status dimension score was on the rise again.
Andreas started looking at various consultancy ideas he had. Cyprus is an international financial hub and as such, many companies were opening offices and domiciling in Cyprus, which is part of the EU. After a random chat with one of his friends over the above-mentioned dinner, he realized that his knowledge can be of service to many entrepreneurs that wish to take advantage of what Cyprus has to offer and that using his connections – he can get quite a few referrals. When he came to me, he already had two meetings with prospects and he felt that he could close a deal with at least one of them. “If this thing works, I can probably make a better salary and control my own schedule. My future will not be controlled by others any more”. Both his Certainty dimension score as well as his Autonomy dimension scores was improving.
By taking the above actions, Andreas managed to decrease the threats from this new situation, and increase the rewards associated.
Within two weeks, Andreas was on a roll and our sessions soon switched from ‘how he can survive” into “how he can build a business, hire more people and let them work for him”. It was an amazing process for both of us.
The above is an example of how the model can be applied in one-on-one coaching, but obviously, the applications are also relevant for group coaching.
A good understanding of the model can help leaders influence others.
A good leader understands the impact of his behaviour, action and attitude. Everything she might say will be interpreted by his peers, colleagues and subordinates and will impact the five dimensions.
A simple remark or comment about one’s work can send his status, certainty, relatedness and even fairness and autonomy downhill, causing him to disengage and will most likely affect that person’s performance. A good leader realises this and knows how to convey the same message in a constructive and positive manner that will empower the employee to figure out his wrongdoing and correct his behaviour.
Here is an additional resource, in case you wish to read some more about Dr. David Rock’s work and how it could apply to business leaders and to coaches that work with executives and managers.