TakeAway: Neuroscience research is revealing the social nature of the high-performance workplace. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing leaders of business or government is to create the kind of atmosphere that promotes status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.
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Excerpted from Strategy+Business, Managing with the Brain in Mind, Issue 56, Autumn 2009
The human brain is a social organ.
Its physiological and neurological reactions are directly and profoundly shaped by social interaction.
“Most processes operating in the background when your brain is at rest are involved in thinking about other people and yourself.”
So, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. Most people who work in companies learn to rationalize or temper their reactions; they “suck it up,” as the common parlance puts it. But they also limit their commitment and engagement.
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Many studies now show that the brain equates social needs with survival.
For example, being hungry and being ostracized activate similar neural responses.Recently, researchers have documented that the threat response is often triggered in social situations, and it tends to be more intense and longer-lasting than the reward response.
Because the threat response uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, they are diverted from other parts of the brain, including the working memory function, which processes new information and ideas. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving; in other words, just when people most need their sophisticated mental capabilities, the brain’s internal resources are taken away from them.
When leaders trigger a threat response, employees’ brains become much less efficient.
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Five particular qualities minimize the threat response status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness (SCARF).
Status and Its Discontents
Humans are constantly assessing how social encounters either enhance or diminish their status.
Research shows that when people realize that they might compare unfavorably to someone else, the threat response kicks in, releasing cortisol and other stress-related hormones.
The mere phrase “Can I give you some advice?” puts people on the defensive because they perceive the person offering advice as claiming superiority.
A Craving for Certainty
When an individual encounters a familiar situation, his or her brain conserves its own energy by shifting into a kind of automatic pilot: it relies on long-established neural connections in the basal ganglia and motor cortex that have, in effect, hardwired this situation and the individual’s response to it.
This makes it easy to do what the person has done in the past, and it frees that person to do two things at once; for example, to talk while driving.
But the minute the brain registers ambiguity or confusion — if, for example, the car ahead of the driver slams on its brakes — the brain flashes an error signal. With the threat response aroused and working memory diminished, the driver must stop talking and shift full attention to the road.
Of course, uncertainty is not necessarily debilitating. Mild uncertainty attracts interest and attention: New and challenging situations create a mild threat response, increasing levels of adrenalin and dopamine just enough to spark curiosity and energize people to solve problems.
The Autonomy Factor
Studies show that the degree of control available to an animal confronted by stressful situations determines whether or not that stressor undermines the ability to function.
A perception of reduced autonomy — for example, because of being micromanaged — can easily generate a threat response.
When an employee experiences a lack of control, or agency, his or her perception of uncertainty is also aroused, further raising stress levels.
By contrast, the perception of greater autonomy increases the feeling of certainty and reduces stress.
Relating to Relatedness
Fruitful and healthy relationships require trust and empathy.
But in the brain, the ability to feel trust and empathy about others is shaped by whether they are perceived to be part of ateam.
Conversely, the human threat response is aroused when people feel cut off from social interaction.
Loneliness and isolation are profoundly stressful.
Playing for Fairness
The perception that an event has been unfair generates a strong response in the limbic system, stirring hostility and undermining trust.
As with status, people perceive fairness in relative terms, feeling more satisfied with a fair exchange that offers a minimal reward than an unfair exchange in which the reward is substantial.
The cognitive need for fairness is so strong that some people are willing to fight and die for causes they believe are just — or commit themselves wholeheartedly to an organization they recognize as fair.
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Remember SCARF: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.
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