How to improve relationships and influence people

Talking around water coolers can improve productivity.

I’m sure that with the winter chill setting in many of you will reach for a scarf to keep you warm and snug. I certainly do, as you can see. But the SCARF I’m talking about is not the brightly coloured accessory we wear around our necks by choice. This is a SCARF that each of us wears, irrespective of age, gender or culture. It is not visible to the eye and it does not always sit comfortably around the neck. In 2008 David Rock encapsulated the Neuroscience findings about the social elements that create an away or toward reaction in our brain, in the SCARF model of social needs. I’m going to explain how this away or toward reaction in the brain works and look at each of the elements of SCARF in a bit more detail and by doing so you will discover how to use this SCARF to build and improve relationships.

The easiest way to explain the away-toward reaction in the brain, would be for me to take you on an imaginary trip to the Kruger National Park. Against all regulations you are on foot and encounter a fierce lion. What happens in your body? Do you have time to think? How do you react? If you are normal, your brain would perceive the lion as a physical threat. When the brain perceives a physical threat, it creates an away response in the limbic system. Your functionality is severely impacted and your instinctive reactions are to stay and fight, to run away or to freeze.

Let’s replace the lion in our imaginary scene with a stash of food or money. What happens in your body? How do you react? Physical rewards, like food or money, create a toward response in the brain. You feel warm and excited, alive! You start thinking of all the possibilities.

You might be thinking, “So what? I know this.” Here is the First So What…

Neuroscience has proven that a threat or reward does not have to be real, to create similar reponses in the brain. It merely has to be perceived by the brain as a threat or reward. This does not happen in the rational thinking part of the brain, but in the limbic system that controls our involuntary responses. A study was done where participants were given two mazes to complete, one featuring the picture of  a mouse with  cheese as the  perceived reward and the other maze featuring the picture of a mouse with  an owl as the  perceived threat. Even the perceived small threat of the picture of the owl, influenced the group’s perception, problem solving, motivation, collaboration and stress levels.

Here is the second “So what”, that brings us to SCARF. Physchological and social threats and rewards activate similar brain networks as physical threats (pain) and rewards (food or money). With this information in mind, Let’s take a closer look at each of the social elements that allow us to draw people closer or to push them away in more detail.

Status is about our relative importance to others. Our brain is constantly monitoring our status in any group. It literally assigns a person a number in that group. We do not want to appear less than the other person and have a need to be seen and heard. We want to know that we matter. Status is often a stronger driver in the workplace, but not limited to the working environment. Any form of criticism, even if just perceived, lowers your status and creates an away response in the brain. The quickest way to raise the status and create a toward response is to sincerely acknowledge someone. The brain does not respond to insincere acknowledgements and once we’ve been criticised, 5 sincere acknowledgements is necessary to raise our status. The brain can distinguish sincerity from insincerity, but cannot distinguish between acknowledgments from other people or acknowlegments you give to yourself. If you acknowledge yourself, you can raise your status. What are the areas where you may feel your status is threatened or where you threaten the status of others? What can you do to address this?

Certainty is about our need to predict the future. You’ll agree with me that any change leads to some measure of uncertainty and the only thing in life that is certain, is change. This threat to certainty  is the reason employees often leave or disengage when there is change in an organisation. Although change is certain, you can  raise your certainty by having a plan or expectations of what will happen in the future. Addressing the areas where you create uncertainty for others, will improve your relationships with those people.

Autonomy is our need for a sense of control. We must feel we have options. Even a perceived sense of control will raise autonomy and can be a powerful parenting tool, when you give choices that can create a sense of autonomy. This can be as easy as asking, ” Do you want to wear the blue dress or the green dress?” What changes do you need to make so that you don’t threaten the autonomy of people?

Relatedness is about our need to experience a sense of safety with others, our need for safe human contact, a need to feel we belong in a group. When we connect with people we can relate to and trust, we release less of the stress hormone, cortisol and more of the feel good hormone, dopamine. Companies found that encouraging chats around the water coolers improved productivity. All because of a higher sense of relatedness. Relatedness, under threat, can mean that you experience feelings of loneliness even you are in a crowd of people. What can you do to increase your circle of influence and how is SCARF contributing to the areas of concern in your relating?

Fairness is our need to feel that we have been dealt with in a fair manner. When we feel that we have been treated unfairly, for example in a pay review, we experience away emotions while random acts of kindness create a strong toward reaction. What is the one act of kindness you can commit to before the end of this day?

Giving conscious awareness to these non-conscious processes means that we can manage them better. I’ve given you your SCARF. Manage it well.



Rock, D. Coaching with the Brain in Mind, July 2009

Rock, D. Your Brain at Work, October 2009

Other Resources:

www. –blog, articles, research