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Brain Hacks 4 Leadership

Oct 30, 2018

Are you implementing a change in your business?  Do you want to know how to get your team aligned and focused on executing instead of worrying about what it means for them?  Do you want to minimize stress and anxiety for you or your team so you can focus on being creative and innovative?  If so, this is the podcast for you. 

My guest, Dianne Lowther, Founder of Brilliant Minds, is going to share the SCARF model and help you understand how to apply it to yourself and your team.   

Dianne has 29 years experience in learning and development.  She is a psychology graduate and licensed user of MBTI, a certified Master Trainer of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), certified ‘Words that Change Minds’ LAB Profile Master Consultant / Trainer and she works mostly with senior executives, leadership teams, HR and technical professionals.

Dianne, thank you so much for being with us today.  Tell us what the brain science is that you're going to be sharing.

I'm going to be talking about the SCARF model, which is the piece of neuroscience that was developed by David Rock and the model is something that I've been using them for a couple of years and I found it to be really helpful in lots of everyday business situations.

So what is the science behind the scarf model?

Okay, so it works on the basis that the human brain is constantly, and I do mean constantly, multiple times per second, scanning the environment for external stimuli that may lead to either a threat or reward.   So stimuli that are associated with positive emotions and reward trigger an approach response.   Stimulus and anything that has an association with negative emotions is seen as a threat and that stimulates us to go into an avoidant response.

These responses then, they're not purely mental or behavioral, and if you look at the data that's been gathered through measures of brain activity such as MRI or EEG scans and so on, they show that threats to any of these social concerns that are listed in the SCARF model lead to physiological responses in the same way as we would respond physiologically to a physical threat. So what we know is that when a person's brain goes into a threat mode, then that has a number of really specific consequences for their mental functioning.

So for example, in threat mode, what a person experiences is reduced working memory. So they'll find it harder to retain short term information. Their field of view will narrow and so they literally cannot see the big picture. And that also is part of generalizing of the sense of threat - so that often people will interpret what might be a very specific thing as being a much more general problem.

So now if there's a sense that one manager at work is unhappy with their performance, they may feel that nobody is happy with their performance.  So the threat becomes generalized and alongside that you also get a greater feeling of overall pessimism. So sometimes people describe that as just a general feeling of gloom and doom.

The other side of that is that when the brain is in the state of reward. So we see things in the environment and or experience something through one of our other senses that triggers a reward. What happens is that we certainly have access to much greater cognitive resources. So we have more insights, we have better ideas and more ideas for action. You have a wider field of view, so we literally can see the bigger picture. If you deal with people as part of your work, especially if you're a leader or manager, it's in everybody's interest to keep your people in a reward frame of mind and away from the threat frame of mind.

So tell us a little bit more about the SCARF model. What does scarf stand for?

Okay. So, the scarf model is simply a description of social concerns that drive human behavior in everyday situations. And the S stands for Status. So that's about a relative importance to other people, and the C stands for Certainty, which is about being able to predict the future. Now I know nobody can predict the future, but it's about the perception of having some kind of certainty and predictability to what's coming next. The A stands for Autonomy, which is our sense of control over events. The R stands for Relatedness and people often think about, sort of, communication and connection, but ultimately what it comes down to is a sense of safety with other people, which is obviously very important in terms of the brain staying in a frame of reward rather than threat.  And then the F stands for Fairness. So this is our perception of fair exchange between people.

So that is status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. And the thing I learned about this model is, having been in learning and development most of my working life, having been a manager or leader, trainer and so on, if someone had simply shown me that list of things and said, these are the social concerns that drive human behavior, I probably would say, oh, that looks pretty reasonable. And I think most of us would, but what I really like about this is that David Rock ,who developed this model, delved into all the relevant neuroscience and can actually prove this. These really are the things that make the difference to a person's behavior. So that's one of the reasons why I particularly liked this model.

That's great, I'm familiar with it and I like it as well. I know that you have used this and you have trained people around in this and seen them apply it. Can you give us some examples, some scenarios of how leaders have used this to be more effective either  in leading themselves are leading others?

Yes, in one of the organizations I've been working with just recently, they designed their communications and engagement plan around this model. And so I went into the company and met with all the senior leaders and we did a day's workshop. We essentially went through the model and said, okay, so if we recognize that status is important to people in the organization and we know from experience that for some people it's more important than it is to others, but we know that at a neurological level a person's perception of their relative importance to other people is really important. Then we said, okay, so what kind of leadership behavior has an impact on this? And so there are obvious things like giving somebody praise recognition, giving them a promotion, allowing them to take responsibility. These things obviously have an impact on a person's sense of their own importance relative to other people and also in just little things - like if you share some important information with someone, then they will feel that they're important because you've seen fit to share the information with them. The opposite of that in there, if you withhold information, people feel excluded. They feel that they're not important and that can immediately trigger them into a state of threat as opposed to a state of reward. So we spent quite a lot of time going through the SCARF model and thinking about that particular environment, knowing things that were going on and specifically looking at a program of change that was being planned, which was going to have an impact on the structure of the organization and the teams in which people were going to be required to work.

So you know that when you announce change in an organization, then that's very unsettling for people and obviously if people are worried about what their role is going to be in in a new structure, then that's going to happen. Impact on their perception of their own status. Things that we spent quite a bit of time on was thinking about this specific change program and the reorganization of teams and saying, “Who in this particular group is likely to be adversely affected by this?” Or is likely to perceive that their adversely effected? Because mostly when you redesign an organization, it's not done with the intention of marginalizing anybody or threatening their status, but sometimes people do end up with a sense of being less important just because of what happens to that particular role. And it's interesting actually. One of the things that David Rock has pointed out with this model is that the person's status is threatened by being left out, which it activates the same parts of the brain that are involved in perception of physical pain.

And I think the people who have known for a long time that there's a connection between what goes on in the mind and what goes on in the body. This is a really concrete example of how something that's happening at an emotional level will actually manifest in a physical experience. And I think this is probably one of the reasons why it's quite common for people to develop, for example, back pain when they're under stress at work. And you know, often the medical profession can't find any reason why they're having this pain. But if you look at what's going on at the mental and emotional level, sometimes there is a good explanation for it. So I think that's one use of the model is in planning is to look at it and say, okay, so if we, if we have a plan to make some changes in our organization, what's the impact of these changes on people's status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and their sense of fairness and what can we do so that we can avoid triggering the threat response?

Or if it's almost inevitable, what can we do to minimize the damage and how can we take action in such that it's more likely to trigger a reward state rather than immediately getting people into threat because you know what it's like in an organization. You know, as soon as you say we are doing a restructure. Then people suddenly start saying, well, what if  my job disappears? Or what if my job changes? Or I ended up reporting to someone that I don't like very much. So suddenly all a sense of certainty is gone and that status is potentially being threatened. If they're in competition for roles, then that probably has an impact on their sense of relatedness and as I said, the sense of safety with other people. So if someone that's been a good colleague might now be in competition with them for a job, then that's going to have an impact on our sense of relatedness and then ultimately when you announce specifically exactly what he was doing, which role and who's working with whom and so on.

Then often people feel that there's been some areas that weren't quite fast and that creates a threat in relation to the sense of fairness. So of the leaders that we worked with on this, they were quite surprised how many things they could come up with that they could do as part of this change program. That would make it easier for them to keep everybody in their workforce, in the state of reward and to minimize the amount of time that people would go into a state of threat. So that was one really important area where we've used this model in planning. Shall I go on? Do you want some more examples? Yeah, I would love that. Thank you. Okay, so that's sort of big organizational change. At the other end of the spectrum, one of my coaches has been using this model a great deal in individual one to one coaching and often it's a good model to use in terms of diagnosing what's not working for someone.

So this particular coach works quite a lot with people who have problems with stress. So by looking at the SCARF model and asking the person being coached, so tell me about your sense of status and your sense of your relative importance to other people around you and taking stock of how they feel and how much they are able to predict the future and so on to get their certainty. Then you can quite easily see which bits of their working life are causing the stress and sometimes it's very easy once you've got that too. Also figure out, well, what do I need to do to address the balance and to get out of this subtle states of threat and take action that will get me more into a reward state. Because I think one of the things about this is that it's very easy to say, okay, well this is a neurological response and we don't have any choice, but actually the evidence suggest that you do.

The greater awareness you have and the more you can spot the things that will trigger certain responses for you offend, the easier it is to get yourself out of the state of threat or to avoid going there in the first. So we're using it as a coaching tool as well. So that's big long-term organizational change. And there are lots of different places in between. So one of the things that I personally like to do is I work a lot with leadership teams, because I think that for any one leader to be able to do everything that's required, especially at very senior level, why they might have and people reporting into them, you know, probably in in a structured way, not having an absolute direct reports, but somebody who has a very senior role.

They have lots of responsibility and there are lots of people who look to them for direction. I think it's unreasonable to expect that one person could provide all the leadership that's needed. So when you get a leadership team together, then no one person has to be good at everything. A team can be much more powerful in terms of leadership than any one individual. And I think it's also really important because when you are going through a lot of change in an organization, then it's not just the workers at the frontline who are subject to the threats and reward issue. And so when the organization said, right, we need to restructure some things changed in our marketplace, we need to respond to that. We need to restructure, maybe we need to retrench a little bit on some developments we've made or maybe we need to push forward and need people willing to step up the pace of change.

You know, there's always things that you have to do, so as a senior leader in that kind of environment, then you may know more of what's going on than most of the people in the organization, but that can mean that you're more aware of the threat to your own status, that you're more aware of the perceived competition between you and other people. Especially if it's a highly political kind of organization. You may worry about the fact that you are not being completely fair to some of the people who are employed by the organization. So it's very easy for the leaders also to be triggered into a state of threat. And as I said, when you're in a, your working memory goes down. You'll feel the view is reduced. You get a general sort of feeling of pessimism and you see issues everywhere you look. And then in that state of mind, you need to go out to your workforce and communicate with them about what's going on and you need to really do a great job as a leader and keeping everybody around you feeling positive about it and being able to perceive that their status is not threatened, that there is still some certainty, etc.

So I think a leadership team can go a long way to supporting each other. So for example, in order to create a sense of certainty when there is a lot of uncertainty, when you're doing a lot of change, maybe your marketplace has changed, maybe your investors are getting restless now. There can be all sorts of pressures on people that are very senior level, but you can create a sense of certainty, for example, by having routines. So if you always meet as a team at a certain time and you work through a certain agenda and you have habits and rituals that you do as a team, then that helps to create some certainty. Obviously if it's a really good team, and that helps with the feeling of relatedness, If you've got a really strong leadership team that's worked together that understands each other, they can rely on each other, then that goes a long way towards creating a good sense of relatedness.

They feel safe with each other, and so that kind of thing can really help in keeping the leaders in a good state. When the whole organization is in the state of our people and if the leaders are in a good state, then it's easier for them to behave in a way that enables people who work for them to stay in that state of reward. So as I already said, there's lots of different ways that we can apply this model. For me, applying it to yourself is probably a good place to begin.

I love that. Great examples from an organization perspective, with the engagement plan to a coaching perspective, to a leadership team perspective, and especially since changes and emotions are contagious, a great way that leadership teams can really have that right sense so their employees are comfortable with the changes that are coming up as well.


What is one thing that a leader could do who is listening to this right now? Applying to yourself is important. How could they start applying this to themselves first?

Well, one of the things that I recommend people do, and in fact I have a little a little tool for this, but it's not rocket science. It's basically just a table and I suggest that people look at each of the five elements with the SCARF model, status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness and ask themselves for them personally what sorts of things reinforce their sense of status and what things threatened status. You know, this is a very personal thing because it's tied up with your own beliefs and values and your prior experiences and so on. And what you find, if you do this as a group, is that some things will have a very strong effect on some individuals and for others they won't really matter that much, but all have certain things that we associate with each of these areas and so it can be really useful and insightful experience to give yourself some time and go through each of the five areas and just ask yourself so what things for me are triggers for a feeling of reward in this area and what things are a trigger, a feeling of threat.

So for example, we talked about being left out. So this isn't really about actually are you being left out or something. It's about the perception of being left out. So what makes somebody feel that they're being left out? Some people are quite happy that they get the information they need to do that job and they know that there's other stuff going on and they're not being included in certain conversations. And actually they're fine with that because if I've got enough information to do that job, then there'll be content for other people. The sense that there are conversations going on without them might really trigger a very strong sense of being left out, so it's very individual and I think it's worthwhile spending some time and thinking about this for yourself now. What feels fair to you and what feels unfair to you? Again, it's a very subjective thing and the idea of fair exchange between individuals and between the leader in that team, between the organization and the employer, between customer and supplier.

Now these are all different areas where fairness can be applied, but what seems fair to one person may not necessarily seem fair to another. So again, you know it's something that if you spend the time thinking about it, then you can be more alert to the kinds of things that are likely to have an impact on you. And when you're preparing for a meeting and event or conference or important telephone calls, your review with your boss, whatever it is, then it's a really helpful thing to have done so that you know where the potential pitfalls are. And also you can perhaps plan what you will do to either avoid or to minimize. The effect of this sort of thing, some of them are easier to predict than others, you know? There are things for all of us where you could say, well, it's quite possible that this one's going to be tied up with a person's sense of wellbeing.

So for example, in terms of certainty, that for most people having regular work and knowing that they're going to get paid, it adds to that feeling of certainty and that's one of the reasons of course why when you say you're going to reorganize the company, people instantly start to wonder if that means that fewer people will be needed in their area of work. Is this a threat to their ongoing employment? And that's obviously an important thing. There are people in the world who don't worry about that too much. Maybe because they've got a private income, maybe because they have a partner who makes lots of money or maybe because they're not very material and they assumed that they can get by even if they don't have regular work. But it is one of those things that for an awful lot of people having regular work and knowing they're going to get paid for it, it will add to their sense of certainty.

But then there are other things that are very individual. So I was doing these exercises for myself and my team. We spent a bit of time, we all did our own inventory and then we shared them. And one of the things that I realized myself, one of the things that impact my sense of relatedness is if someone gives me a gift and it's something I don't like, if I had that experience and it triggers all sorts of things, you know, because first of all, it sort of suggests that, well, this person doesn't actually know me as well as I thought they knew me because they were giving me something that I would have thought they knew that I wouldn't like. But then it also creates all sorts of issues about how do I react to that? Do I keep it to myself right now?

I need to give them something because they gave me some something. So then all your certainty about how a relationship operates and what's the correct social thing to do, you know, so if people are exchanging gifts at Christmas or a birthday, we will have our little patterns about what we do and how we treat people and how we respond. And then when you open up the present and it's something that you dislike or even it's something that you wouldn't have wanted to own, what does you do? So there are a lot of these things that are very individual. Some people would say, well it doesn't matter to me. I just love the fact that someone's given me a gift instead and they thought about me. They spent time choosing it and the fact that they haven't picked something I really like, then I don't mind that at all.

So I think it was knowing for yourself, what are the things that are likely to trigger either the threat or the reward responses in your brain. So that  said, what's something that people could do straight away? That's one thing I would definitely recommend, the great example of using this on your own and then with your team because the more we do this for ourselves, we understand our own triggers, that self awareness and then using this with our team, we can understand how to best get them into that reward state.

So fundamentally it sounds like the brain science behind it is that the brain is wired to move away from threat and toward reward and the SCARF model gives us a model to look and see which of those areas either get in a threat state, which is much more closed and which get us more in a toward state.

Yes. What you find is that in the reward state, people are much more creative and then they have so many more ideas and greater insights. If someone's in a good state of reward, then there'll be able to extract the information from data rather than it just being data, and they can figure out what to do with it, so you just have so much more cognitive ability in the reward state than you do in a threat state. I think in the modern world, a lot of people, especially in the workplace are constantly in a state of threat there and there are so many things that threaten that feeling of wellbeing, lack of certainty or what's like a fantasy that feels safe with people or they're not having a full autonomy on things.

I've seen in the UK in particular over the last 10 years since the recession was that most organizations now are set up financially so that no one person can spend the company's money. So even if you're a very senior manager and you have a multimillion pound budget in theory, you actually can't make a financial decision and say, right, we were going to spend money on that. You have to check it out with somebody else. Somebody else has to say, yes, I agree with you, that's a reasonable thing to spend the company's money on. So lots of people have had that sense of autonomy diminished quite dramatically because of that, so I think as I go around, there were lots of people for whom being at work means being in a state of threat, but if by self-awareness they can take some of that back then I think that makes a big difference not only to individuals but also to organizations.

I love how you've applied it  - individually, one on one with the team and also from a large scale change organization perspective and the tip on creativity. We can be more creative in the rewards state. Well Dianne, thank you so much. I really appreciate you sharing this with us and this model and work that you've done and are continuing to do with your teams. Anything else you want to share before we wrap up?

I think in general, the reason why I find this model useful is that it takes something that many of us would have looked at and related to as business leaders, as managers, as coaches, we will say, yes, I can see that. That is a fair description of what happens for people. I like the fact that we also have the neuroscience to back it up. For me. That gives me much more confidence in the model that I'm happy to go and share it with people and how could you use it for myself because I know it's not just somebody's opinion.

I know it's actually backed up with good science and we know that these reactions are hardwired into the brain. They're not the result of conscious choices, but as an emotionally intelligent and self-aware adult, anybody can have some capacity to manage their own responses and to get out of a threat response and into a reward state. But you do need to spend a bit of time working on it and figuring out for yourself and experimenting. But I think what it means is that ultimately it gives us all a greater sense of autonomy and spending that time on understanding ourselves also gives us a bit more certainty. Then being able to manage our own responses perhaps increases our self-esteem and makes us feel that we have a greater status with others and so on. So it kind of creates a virtuous circle and that's one of the reasons why I really liked this model.

Thank you, Dianne, and we look forward to having you on another podcast. That will be my pleasure. Thank you. Thank you.

You can reach Dianne at

I hope you enjoyed this podcast and can start applying the principals right away.  If you would like to know more about how to apply these concepts, growing your leadership and your team, please reach out to me, Jill Windelspecht, at or visit my website  I look forward to hearing fro