Leadership A Brain Game

Better Organizational Change through Neuroscience

Understanding how the brain works, and planning change around it, can bring more engagement, more creativity and better implementation.

“Thinking serves at the pleasure of emotion.” Louis Cozolino, American psychologist

There is an easily understood framework that leaders can use to help navigate complex change such as organization re-design. It is to understand the built-in preferences our brain has for domains of social experience. By integrating this framework into your thinking and leadership behavior, you will better understand how to leverage knowledge from neuroscience into successful organization change. The organizational benefits of selecting a change method that is consistent with the brain’s built-in preferences include more engagement, more creativity, and better implementation.

The Brain’s Built-In Cognitive Preferences
You can better understand human behavior with very modest knowledge of neuroscience. The field of neuroscience has established that the brain has different neural systems to process emotional and rational reasoning. Of special interest, the more one of these two systems is turned on, the more the other system is turned off. A set of preferences wired deeply into the brain has significant influence on the emotional system. If a person perceives a threat to any of these preferences, there is an intense emotional response that is slow to resolve and diminishes rational thinking. Most of us know little to nothing about this chain of connection.

The SCARF acronym represents a practical model to help you understand the brain and its preferences. The model can help you not only anticipate and interpret emotional response in others but also inform effective engagement strategies. You can also use it to assess and preempt your own emotional responses to organizational events and, as a result, make better decisions.

The following explains the basic elements of the SCARF model:

  • S is for Status – The subjective sense of favorable social position relative to others
  • C is for Certainty – The belief that one’s operating environment is familiar and predictable
  • A is for Autonomy – The ability to self-determine actions without unwanted constraints
  • R is for Relatedness – The sense of social belonging
  • F is for Fairness – The sense of being treated fairly, relative to others and personal expectation

Each of these dimensions can exert a powerful influence on individuals as they experience change. When needs are met, there is a favorable response. When needs are not met, the response is not favorable. Organization design is particularly dense with opportunities for strong emotional response.

Change Triggers Feelings of Threat
When an organization’s leaders re-design an operating model, it is interfering with established power structures. My sense of status is threatened if the unit I lead becomes less central to the overall strategy of the organization. It is threatened if my budget or scope of responsibility might become smaller. It is threatened if I might end up with a title that is less attractive and connotes less influence. It is threatened if my peer (or worse, my internal competitor whom I personally dislike) might be promoted into a position higher than mine.

Any of these changes, and changes like them, will threaten my sense of well-being in the status dimension. This threat is directly registered in my brain’s emotional center and it creates the conditions for me to make poor decisions.

Emotional triggers don’t stop with status. My certainty plummets because I sense that most anything I know about how the organization operates is subject to change. My autonomy is threatened because I don’t know how this change will influence my ability to self-determine my actions. My experience of relatedness is stressed because I start to feel competitive with my peers and dehumanized by those making decisions. My sense of fairness is tweaked because I’m not asked to participate in decisions that affect me or the people in my unit. The aggregate point is to demonstrate that the list of perceived threats is expansive, limited only by one’s subjective sense of the change process.

Thus, the SCARF model helps identify the neurological playing field associated with any re-design effort. With this awareness, leaders can make better decisions at the macro level of change process. They can also make better decisions at the level of individual employee engagement.

Pay Now or Pay Later
Social dimensions are also a source of well-being. When preferences are favorable, people feel a sense of satisfaction, attraction and energy. In this state, there is no threat response and people do their best and most creative thinking. There are fewer self-protective behaviors, or perhaps none, that work against the change effort.

An organization re-design will greatly benefit from the application of what we know about the brain and the benefits and costs associated with meeting or inflaming its preferences. A change method that is consistent with the brain’s preferences will be participatory.

  • Status – I feel important and valued because leaders recognize my ability to contribute.
  • Certainty – I know why we must change, and I know as much as anyone can know about the changes that are coming.
  • Autonomy – I feel a broad sense of self-determination because I’m asked to participate in the change process.
  • Relatedness – My sense of relatedness has soared because of being connected to others throughout the organization in matters of substance.
  • Fairness – I feel represented and involved. I understand the process.

“Pay Now or Pay Later” reflects awareness that substantive change requires investment in money, time, and energy. Pay Now is the path of participation and involvement. It is investment early in the change process. It tends to generate better information and creativity, facilitate implementation and minimize counterproductive behavior. It leverages what we know about the brain and the influence of positive experience in each of the SCARF dimensions.

Pay Later reflects awareness that change designed by the few and deployed to the many is slow to implement, frequently fails to change an organization and shifts the cost to later stages of the change process. Pay Later describes the costs of incomplete information, the selling effort, conflict, slow implementation and self-interested behavior that subverts the change effort. Pay Later suffers from the outcomes of negative experience in the SCARF dimensions. It fails to leverage what we know about the brain into a system of organizational change that is in tune with human neurology.

When We Know Better, We Can Do Better
This article has explored a framework that leaders can use to help navigate substantive organization change such as re-design. It is based on neuroscience and the impact of social experience.

I propose that your first step to realizing its value is to convince yourself of the validity of the SCARF model. Use the model to assess your own internal posture to an organizational situation. Does SCARF help you better understand your inner experience, attitudes, and outward behavior?

Afterward, consider the primary method your organization uses to approach change. Is it consistent or dissonant with what you now know about the human brain? David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, claims, “It may be that understanding the brain is one of the best ways of improving performance in any setting, especially for teams of people who must work together.”    

Dan Schmitz is a consultant at On the Mark, a global organization design consulting firm and leader in collaborative business transformation with offices in the US and UK.

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