Doing the right thing: cultural change and SCARF

I have been working with a client on a culture change process. We are using an appreciative inquiry approach in which the conversations all focus on what is going on when the business is performing well. By analyzing the content some conditions emerged that characterize what is going on when Quality is high. These things are:

Visible and aligned leadership

  • Strong team working
  • A strong appetite for learning and development
  • High levels of personal commitment

Simon, one of the client team, asked a simple and difficult question: since we all know these things are conducive to a quality environment why don’t we do them all the time?

The discoveries from neuroscience may provide some answers. These are not based on motivation theories but on evidence about how our brains work.

Our brains have an organizing principle: minimize danger and maximize reward. It evolved over millions of years on the savannahs. A stimulus associated with positive emotions or rewards will lead to an approach response; a stimulus associated with negative emotions or punishments will be seen as a threat and will trigger an avoid response.

A threat response means that we find it more difficult to make decisions, solve problems and collaborate. A reward or toward response makes it more likely that we will be open to new suggestions, collaborate, trust others and accept change.

We constantly (5 times a second!) monitor the environment for threat and reward. So what stimulates either response? David Rock developed the SCARF model – a useful shorthand about stimuli that create toward or away responses. He calls them social domains that drive human behaviour:

Status: Feeling important relative to others, doing better than others, seniority, improving yourself, learning and developing, growing, self-esteem, respected by others, sense of achievement

  • Certainty: being able to predict the future, knowing what is going to happen, clarity about what will happen when, clarity about responsibility
  • Autonomy: feeling in control over events or environment, free to determine how things are done, influence on decisions, choice, not feeling constrained or micro-managed
  • Relatedness: Feeling connected, feeling part of an ‘ingroup’, feeling safe with others, feeling someone has your interests at heart and is interested in you
  • Fairness: Perceiving exchanges to be fair/transparency

While the threat and reward responses developed to protect us from danger or enemies and encourage us to move towards warmth, shelter and friends, they still operate and are stimulated by everyday events we face at work. The table below lists the kinds of things that can stimulate the responses:

So returning to Simon’s question: why don’t we do the things we know support a quality culture.

When you think about how our brains work, why would we? Although we are very much social animals we are not built to collaborate; indeed our interactions with each other can cause defensiveness, aggression and non-co-operation

  • Our brains have not evolved to cope with twenty-first century corporate life. In fact we need to adjust the way we run organizations to make them more fit for people
  • In particular we have to improve the way we run feedback mechanisms, meetings, communication and involvement to avoid generating negative responses that inhibit collaboration
  • We all need to be more aware of how our brains work and the consequences of certain behaviours in order to create more toward responses
  • Given the way our brains work it is not surprising that quality is not the de facto modus operandi
  • We clearly are capable of achieving quality cultures but we need to put much more effort into, for example, providing more
    • Positive recognition
    • Information about plans, timetables, scenarios, contingencies, etc.
    • Choice over how people manage their work
    • Emphasis on building networks, contacts and friendships at work
    • Openness and transparency

This only touches the surface of some of the insights Neuroscience can bring to how we go about engaging people at work. There are, for example, many lessons to be learned around goal setting, managing bias, and emotional regulation that are also relevant to creating quality cultures.

Acknowledgements: David Rock for SCARF, Hilary Scarlett for inspiration and Simon Francis for asking great questions.



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