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Stay Out of the Brain Stem, Part II: The Effects of Brain Science on Organizational Culture

Part two of a two-part series in understanding the implications of how our brains perceive social interactions in the workplace

By Troy Holt

Leaders should motivate, influence and teach others. Knowledge of how the brain interacts in the workplace gives leaders diagnostic tools that allow them to inspire incredible results. Understanding the brain leads to better decision-making and problem solving, enhanced ability to regulate emotions, improved collaboration with others and a greater ability to facilitate change.

Part one of this series discussed how our brains perceive negative reactions in the workplace. The most primal of reactions originate in the brain stem. Higher-level thinking occurs in the neocortex. Part two examines solutions and strategies for keeping our team members in the neocortex and functioning at high capacity.


In a 2008 NeuroLeadership Journal article titled, “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others,” David Rock developed a model of social rewards and threats and provided a framework for understanding how interactions between team members affect each person in very deep ways. SCARF is an acronym for key needs that help people better navigate the social world in the workplace:

  • Status is about relative importance to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

These five elements are environmental factors that the brain is always monitoring, mostly below conscious awareness, and activate either the “primary reward” or “primary threat” circuitry in the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks as a threat to one’s life. In the same way, perceiving an increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.

Strategies for Staying in the Neocortex

holt 2How often do leaders make it a priority to cultivate the brain functions that allow for more creativity, innovation and imagination? Keeping in mind the principles of SCARF, we can amplify the reward feeling and reduce the threat response in our employees’ brains. This will help elevate them into the neocortex and allow them to be more creative, innovate and imaginative.

Here are some strategies for keeping employees in the neocortex:

Encourage self-feedback – often when you give an employee critical feedback on areas for improvement, they respond very defensively and argue because their brains unconsciously perceive this feedback as a threat to their status (the “S” in SCARF). Move this situation from threat to reward by encouraging a conversation in which an employee can give feedback to himself or herself. Get people to ask questions about themselves and tell you what they think. Their feeling of status will increase and they will move to an unconscious feeling of reward.

Eliminate ambiguity – uncertainty of any kind generates a danger response in our brains. Our brains are certainty-creating machines…always trying to predict what will happen next. Give clear expectations about what will occur and what you expected from people. This provides far more certainty (the “C” in SCARF).

Always give choices – when we feel that we have no control, no choice and no autonomy (the “A” in SCARF), our stress level is high. However, when we are in a stress situation and we gain some level of control, choice or autonomy, our level of stress comes down dramatically. We need to know that we have choices, even when it appears that there are not any choices.

Create bonding opportunities for team members – when we first meet someone, our brains automatically and unconsciously perceive a threat. Think about how it feels to enter a room full of people you have never met. You feel a bit uncomfortable until you have talked with two or three others, then your level of relatedness (the “R” in SCARF) goes up and your stress goes down. When we have a few moments of bonding with another person, we experience an oxytocin effect and our brains categorize the other person as “like us” instead of “not like us” (e.g., friend vs. foe). This can manifest in the workplace when team members have not had sufficient opportunity to bond and move beyond the threat stage with each other. Incorporate trust-building activities to create a bonding experience and establish common ground.

Cultivate a sense of fairness – a fair (the “F” in SCARF) exchange activates the reward circuitry in the brain, while a perceived unfair exchange activates the danger response. Since our brains automatically err on the side of the danger response, it is very important for leaders to be clear about treating people equitably and to be open, obvious and transparent about it.

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Open up the “in group” – leaders should be aware that we all make a decision about each person we interact with and place them in the “in group” or the “out group.” When a person is in our “in group,” we process what he/she is saying using the same brain networks as our own thoughts. We process communication from an “out group” person in a completely different brain network. This is the neurobiology of trust, teamwork and collaboration. It feels good to be with “in group” members, but we treat everyone as a foe until proven otherwise. Leaders open up the “in group” by creating shared goals…without which, an organization will be a series of silos.

Impact on Organizational Culture

An understanding of how our brains perceive social situations and the climate in the workplace is crucial to understanding how to create a positive organizational culture. According to Rock, many leaders, particularly new leaders, often threaten people in four or even five of the elements of SCARF. They create a danger response.

Criticism will create a threat to status. Unclear expectations will generate a sense of uncertainty. Micromanaging will rob workers of a sense of autonomy. A failure to connect on a human level to avoid getting “too close” will threaten a sense of relatedness. Allowing “in-crowd” and “out-crowd” groups of employees to exist will cause a perception of unfairness. Many leaders mean well, but do not realize the negative effects they create. The impact on organizational culture is workers who function at far less than their capacities or abilities.

holt 3What does it look like when a leader understands the elements of SCARF? Nurturing the great qualities in an employee will allow the employee to experience an increase in status. Providing clear expectations will result in increased certainty. Allowing employees to make decisions will increase their sense of autonomy. Establishing a trust relationship and a bond with employees will raise their sense of relatedness. Treating all employees equitably enhances the feeling of fairness.

A leader who understands how the brain functions will generate a reward state that will allow people to work smarter, be more effective, more engaged, more productive and happier. This will keep workers out of the brain stem and elevate their thinking to higher levels in the neocortex where they can be more creative, more entrepreneurial, more focused and better able to make the leader look good.


ASPA member Troy Holt, MPA, has twenty-four years of public agency management experience in departments ranging from Police, Public Works, Transportation, Administrative Services and the City Manager’s Office.  He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program and he is currently the Director of Communications and Government Relations for the City of Rancho Cordova, CA– the first local government agency to earn the distinction as a Fortune Great Place to Work.  He can be reached via email at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @TroyGHolt

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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