transformation of management isn’t just about another new technique or
model. It’s about shifting our paradigm to incorporate the hard data of
science and fundamentally changing the way we think about business.”
Charles S. Jacobs, Management Rewired
Neuroscience will revolutionize the
way we do business. It will do that because it will eventually transform
the way we view the way human beings function.
In Part 1,
we explored some of the fundamental principles that underlay
contemporary management practices. It is safe to say that while issues
like motivation, learning and “performance” are all topics that dominant
management theory, they are not well understood within the context of human psychology.
The dominant left-brain functioning
which underpins management concepts keeps us stuck in old practices
based on ideas of fragmented human experience.
The good but challenging news from the
neuroscience front asserts that fragmentation isn’t really possible
without a significant cost to well-being. Unless we view the person as a
whole system we’re missing the amazing dynamism of human functioning and the interrelatedness of social communication.
One huge neuroscience “aha” is that
brains are social. They function in relation to other brains. That
information is a mighty revelation for most of the business world. As
Management Rewired author Charles S. Jacobs wrote, “Doing
business seems more complicated in the world according to neuroscience.
In the world of logic and common sense, I can just do what I want with
no more concern for relationships or mind-sets than a billiard ball has.
Now science teaches me that my actions are constrained by the
relationships I find myself in and that I have to account for how others
think. Thankfully, though, my brain is naturally configured (with mirror neurons) to work just the way neuroscience tells me it must.”
Just as traditional neuroscience had
for many years considered the brain as an isolated entity and largely
ignored the influences of the social environment as a factor; now
management theorists will have to recognize the considerable impact of
social structures on the operations of mind and body.
David Rock’s SCARF Model provides a groundbreaking translation of hard neuroscience to the practical applications of business management.
Every system, design and
organizational practice elicits a response from employees’ brains.
Either an action triggers a threat response (moving away) or a reward
response (moving towards). When a brain encounters what it perceives as a
threat response, it necessarily becomes less efficient as it mobilizes
According to Rock, “When
you encounter something unexpected – a shadow seen from the corner of
your eye – or a new colleague moving into the office next door – the
limbic system is aroused. This is the “minimize danger, maximize reward”
response; the fundamental organizing principle of the brain.”
This fight or flight response mobilizes a person’s neurophysiology to
“flee” or “fight” threat and releases stress response hormones that
flood the body.
Writing about SCARF, blogger Ed Batista points out, “Our
typical reaction to the strong negative emotions generated by a threat
response is to suppress them, particularly in the workplace. But this
response has many undesirable consequences, from reducing our own memory
function to raising the blood pressure of people around us. So the cost
of a threat response isn’t borne solely by the person experiencing it,
but by anyone who interacts with them or depends on their effectiveness.
It’s a shared–one might even say contagious–social experience, and this
highlights the importance of group dynamics, perhaps most significantly
the extent to which it’s safe (or unsafe) in a given group to express
negative or difficult emotions.”
This transformational knowledge isn’t
convenient for most organizational leaders. David Rock’s salient
argument implies consequences for all business leaders, “Although
a job is often regarded as a purely economic transaction, in
which people exchange their labor for financial compensation, the brain
experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. Leaders
who understand this dynamic can more effectively engage their
employees’ best talents, support collaborative teams, and create an
environment that fosters productive change. Indeed, the ability to
intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal
performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years
The 5 Domains of SCARF
Status is a powerful force in every
person’s work experience. While many factors (beliefs, values, past
experience, emotional awareness and sense of self-esteem and competency)
all shape our (often) unconscious responses to status, it is a primary
activator in the brain’s reaction to threat or reward.
The brain determines status in relation or measurement to others. Rock points out that, “Your brain maintains complex maps for “pecking order’ of the people surrounding you.”
Recent studies show that the brain may prefer the rewards of status
even more than cash. In her research at the National Institutes of
Mental Health, neuroscientist Caroline Zink found that we process money
in the same part of the brain (the striatum) as social values. Zink
maintains, “It’s hugely influential even (when we’re not) in direct competition with someone else.”
Another recent scientific finding
impacts the status domain; we experience social pain in the same region
of the brain as physical pain.
It appears that the knowledge of this “neural overlap” established “an
increasingly close relationship between our experience of physical pain
and the painful emotions that come with feeling socially rejected. The
latest study shows that getting dumped, disrespected or excluded is
experienced as pain.”
Recent studies also show that
loneliness is playing an important role in understanding the role of
social status in the workplace.
In a recent New York Times article, the connections between psycho-social behavior and work were explored, “Because it
is part of the human condition, loneliness is often regarded as a
personal problem. But managers may need to view it as an organizational
issue as well, ” according to research by Professor
Barsade and Hakan Ozcelik, associate business professor at California
State University, Sacramento.
In a sample of more than 650 workers, the researchers found that
loneliness, reduces an employee’s productivity in individual and team
tasks – “Loneliness tends to
distort social cognition and influences an individual’s interpersonal
behavior, resulting in increased hostility, negativity, depressed mood,
increased anxiety, lack of perceived control and decreased
cooperativeness.” Emotional contagion expert,
Professor Sigal Barsade is further exploring whether loneliness may
also be “contagious” as she has found with emotions like anger and
happiness in the workplace.
Nearly every aspect of workplace
activity is touched by the brain’s assessment of status. Interpersonal
communication, team interaction, email communication, workplace design,
promotions, meetings structure, performance reviews and the entire
repertoire of feedback methods need to be reexamined in light of what we
now know about the role of status in the brain’s response mechanisms.
A lack of consideration for factors
that evoke status issues heightens the risks of employee hostility,
reticence and may even stimulate conflict.
The brain craves certainty .
We can blame the brain for our incessant drive for certainty. Dr.
Robert Burton, former Chief of Neurology at the University of California
at San Francisco-Mt. Zion Hospital, comments, “I don’t believe that we can avoid certainty bias, but we can mitigate its effect by becoming aware of how our mind assesses itself.
We need to recognize that the feelings of certainty and conviction are
involuntary mental sensations, not logical conclusions.”
One reason we’re hard-wired to seek
certainty (where in the real-world there is none) is due to the brain’s
brilliant capacity for prediction. Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm
Pilot and founder of a neuroscience institute writes, “Your
brain receives patterns from the outside world, stores them as
memories, and makes predictions by combining what it has seen before and
what is happening now. Prediction is the primary function of the
neo-cortex and the foundation of intelligence.”
Being a prediction machine, the brain
gathers information and makes assumptions based on the “safest” possible
outcome. In the larger scheme of brain tasks, this mechanism has an
elegant purpose – the conservation of precious neural energy and the
protective effectiveness against real threat responses.
When you can’t predict the outcome of a
situation the brain signals an alert to pay more attention. When this
happens a threat response can occur. David Rock’s example speaks
to the fragile role that assumptions form in the brain as it tries to
accommodate multiple possibilities in predicting outcomes, “Imagine
expecting a colleague to phone you at 3PM. It’s now 3.06PM. You
automatically start to try to predict futures: If he calls now, will he
apologize? What made him late? Is he okay?” The
emotional “stakes” will also play a role in how the brain demands
certainty. Imagine if the caller was the employee’s boss, child, or
parent. Who the caller is impacts the urgency for certainty.
While no one can guarantee certainty
in an uncertain world, organizational leaders can try to provide greater
perceptions of certainty in the ways they structure organizational
processes and activities. Rock recommends, “Sharing of business plans, rationales for change and accurate maps of an organization’s structure promote this perception.”
Providing greater transparency and
promoting a climate of trust can also contribute to fostering feelings
of certainty. Leaders and managers that influence the conditions that
promote greater satisfaction, contentment, calm and confidence will
better ensure that employees’ threat responses are not unnecessarily
It’s long been recognized by science
that when research subjects’ control is thwarted, the organism
experiences significant degrees of stress. It seems that choice is a
necessary variable in the maintenance of overall well-being. The
balanced brain seeks an idiosyncratic degree of both autonomy and social
In the right personal doses, autonomy –
freedom of self-control – activates the brain’s reward center. Because
“a little can go a long way,” even small expressions of self-control
satisfy the brain’s need for autonomy. Office space, control over
decisions, flexible work-hours and connection but not reliance on
co-workers can all contribute to satisfaction.
Unfortunately, most management systems
today are still top-heavy with authoritarian control. Micro-management
and environments laden with criticism trigger threat responses, however
subtle. These stressors all cause the brain to take defensive, even
aggressive postures for self-protection.
Most Westerners have been
conditioned to images of self-reliance and competiveness as the dominant
themes of success, especially in relation to work. The concept of collaboration is
still a relatively new idea in the workplace and the systems that
foster it aren’t routinely practiced. Organizations talk teams but many
employees don’t have the skills or mandate to operate as such. Yet,
most leaders would agree that effective relationships are essential to
meet business goals.
The brain’s needs for relatedness and certainty are interconnected. In David Rock’s view, “Each
time a person meets someone new, the brain automatically makes quick
friend-or-foe distinctions. When the new person is perceived as
different, the information travels along neural pathways that are
associated with uncomfortable feelings.”
Rock’s organizational advice is that “Teams
of diverse people cannot be thrown together. They must be deliberately
put together to minimize the potential for threat responses. Trust
cannot be assumed or mandated, nor can empathy or even goodwill be
compelled. These qualities develop only when people’s brains start to
recognize former strangers as friends. This requires time and social
Since 2009, post-recession media
coverage has broadcasted images and information that highlight unfair
policies and practices that impact the lives of most people. This
information has resulted in consistent polling that shows that the
majority of Americans do not feel they are playing on an economically
fair playing field. This has challenged many people’s notions of
fairness and has contributed to lower than ever trust levels of most
Perceptions of unfairness generate
strong limbic system responses that can trigger resentment, hostility,
anger and even rage. While people’s ideas of fairness are wide ranging,
even small actions perceived as unfair, can activate the flight or fight
response. Loyalty and trust in organizations and workplace
relationships are governed by beliefs about fairness. Although, those
beliefs may not be openly expressed, they are nonetheless motivating
choices and impacting behavior.
Fairness is a primary threat response.
It is rooted in our evolutionary past in basic social survival
interactions. Given our innate preference for fairness, cognitive dissonance can
play a major role in mitigating fairness. Yet our cognitive mind games
can’t ensure that emotional backlash won’t occur when employees perceive
Workers are constantly trolling the
environment for examples of fair treatment. When they perceive fairness
feel-good dopamine is activated in the brain; with a sense of trust
increasing levels of reinforcing oxytocin are released.
Organizational leaders should note
that employees are relating to fairness with in the workplace at
multiple levels. Organizational decisions, hierarchical structure,
hiring, firing and promotions, salaries, manager-employee treatment,
executive privilege, division of labor, benefits, information sharing
and cronyism are all liable to create lasting impressions of fairness.
The Leadership Challenge
If you are a leader, the learning
curve is steep. Most leaders are on unfamiliar ground when it comes to
understanding human dynamics. Embracing innovation may mean looking at
your employees in an entirely new light. Old paradigms must give way to
new ideas and actions that may seem uncomfortable and “uncertain” at
The first step is overcoming our
personal resistance to change. This is difficult because you first have
to convince your brain that this is a good thing. But one thing is true –
these changes are inevitable. We can’t hold back the tide of knowledge
about who we really, what we really want and how we really function. The
world really isn’t flat.
As always, I appreciate your readership, subscriptions, comments, tweets and shares.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners