Explaining People’s Behavior at Work

I found a great interview with David Rock in the NYT.

Rock, the author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, has developed the acronym SCARF to better explain people's behavior at work. He explains:

One of the challenges with management is you’ve got very smart people who are high status, and they like to feel smart. They give lots of feedback to everyone else about what they should be doing better, and other people take that as a threat. People react to a performance review as if someone is saying your life is in danger. And the pushback is real. People will push back so intensely because they experience a strong nonconscious threat response. It’s the same mechanism that makes people argue to be right even when they know they’re wrong.

Certainty is a constant drive for the brain. We saw this with Hurricane Sandy. The feeling of uncertainty feels like pain, when you can’t predict when the lights will come back on and you’re holding multiple possible futures in your head. That turns out to be cognitively exhausting. And the more we can predict the future, the more rewarded we feel. The less we can predict the future, the more threatened we feel. As soon as any ambiguity arises in even a very simple activity, we get a threat response. So we are driven to create certainty.

This is challenging in the context of work. When the boss walks in the room, they create a status threat, but they also create a certainty threat because they often create all sorts of change, all sorts of chaos, and you don’t know what’s coming next. But many organizations are taking an open-book-management approach, making all their financials available to everyone. I think there’s a lot of power in increasing people’s sense of certainty and reducing the inherent uncertainty that can happen in an organization.

The third one is autonomy, which is a sense of control. It’s similar to certainty, but it’s different. Certainty is prediction. Autonomy is control. And it’s a very important thing for us to feel a sense of control, so much so that a small stress where you have no control generally is in fact a very big stress. When autonomy goes down, it’s a strong threat. So when the boss walks in the room, they’ve got the final say, so suddenly your autonomy goes down. So now we’re three for three with just the boss walking in the room.

Let’s shift to relatedness. We make a decision about each person we interact with that impacts basic processing and many other things. And the decision we make about everyone is, “Are you in my ‘in’ group or in my ‘out’ group?’” If you decide that I’m in your “in” group, you process what I’m saying using the same brain networks as thinking your own thoughts. If you decide I’m in your “out” group, you use a totally different brain network.

… The final one is fairness, and it’s very fundamental. A fair exchange of anything is intrinsically rewarding. An unfair exchange of anything is intrinsically threatening — and not just threatening, but very intensely threatening. So you can give someone $20 in a study and they can be really angry at you, rather than happy, because someone else got $40.

So these are the five domains of SCARF, and they are playing out in every situation, every interaction.

When a leader walks into the room

everyone else’s status goes down, everyone’s certainty goes down, everyone’s autonomy goes down. The relatedness to the leader goes down. And often fairness will go down in particular just because leaders are paid so much more money for what can look to others like less work. So what you see in general situations at work is people feeling a threat in all five domains, just due to their boss’s existence.

A smart boss will notice this and do all sorts of things to try to fix it. Some bosses will try to play down their status. A smart boss will work on certainty and make sure they’re establishing clear expectations. That really helps people. That also helps with autonomy, when you have really clear expectations.