Planning non-confrontational interactions

As consultants, most of our job revolves around communication in various shapes and forms. We often have access to people on different levels of hierarchy, which necessitates an ability to speak to senior stakeholders and navigate hierarchies. We also might find ourselves in positions of leadership within a team, where we act as agents of change where we have to get the crucial conversations right. A toolkit to plan interactions, especially the less pleasant ones, becomes invaluable.

The SCARF model allows for a certain degree of planning, understanding, and ultimately modifying the change agent’s own and other people’s behavior in social situations, allowing us to be adaptive when the stakes are high. The model is based on the realization that individuals are not rational decision makers, and embraces irrational decisions in five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

The idea is that these five domains trigger the so-called primary reward or primary threat circuitry of our brain. These circuits are deeply embedded in remnants of our cerebral evolution which are no longer consciously used, but nevertheless still active and thus have to be accounted for: Our brain will try to minimize perceived threats and maximize rewards. The brain uses the fight-or-flight responses from primary needs like food and water and applies them to more complex social interactions: More means reward, less means conflict.

Unless carefully managed, an organizational change is likely to affect all five domains of SCARF for a wide range of people, leading to minimal sharing of information, reduced accurate perception of the other’s thoughts and intentions, and reduced creativity. Let’s have a closer look.

Status is a significant driver of workplace behavior, as it is about relative importance to others. It will determine where we fit into the hierarchy both socially and organizationally. Status-confirming information can elicit activation in neural reward circuitry. In hierarchical organizations where a position in a hierarchy is a zero-sum game and coincides with respect, power, autonomy, and salary, aspiration is seen as competition, triggering a fight response.

Certainty refers to the need for clarity and the ability to make accurate predictions about the future. Working with a lack of clarity can increases stress levels and impairs the ability to make effective balanced decisions. A person’s brain uses fewer resources in familiar situations than unfamiliar ones. Not setting clear expectations and demanding continuous improvement without the proper guidance is often cause for resistance. It is the team lead’s job to create a shared vision that speaks to these uncertainties and act as a guiding principle.

Autonomy is tied to a sense of control over the events in one’s life and the perception that one’s behavior has an effect on the outcome of a situation. People have a fundamental need for personal control. Lack of autonomy can be perceived as a stress/threat situation, while more autonomy activates the brain’s reward system. Enforcing decisions and thereby restricting autonomy subconsciously triggers resistance, regardless of intent and justification. A team that is reorganizing functions could offset SCARF threats by involving people in some aspect of choice about the process, which would increase a sense of autonomy.

Relatedness is a sense of safety with others. Groups build mutual trust to form a barrier against the unknown. The production of oxytocin, which increases the positive feeling of trust, stabilizes these relationships and helps build a team. Physical separation is a first step to creating this barrier. It is also the reason why agile teams with a steady stream of decisions need to be located in the same room, overhearing the same discussions, and sharing the same worries. Pathological organizations physically separate leadership from the drones for this reason, apart from career often being a zero-sum game in such places, as mentioned before.

Fairness refers to just and non-biased exchange between people. Perceived unfairness triggers our brain’s defence mode. A strong response from a person that removes the unfairness can activate the reward centre of the brain. A good example for this is the salary gap. Inside a team, we strive to have fair distribution of salary, or rather purchasing power. To illustrate this point, a study had shown that people would go so far as to even sacrifice their own money as long as it hurt others more who supposedly didn’t deserve it more. We’re still social animals so this works also the other way round, where people accept harm to themselves to ease other’s suffering.

Further Reading