5 Ways to Be a Better Leader Using Brain Science

It’s no secret that as leaders you want to maximize your team’s engagement and their ability to collaborate. It’s also no secret that ongoing change fatigue, being chronically under resourced, and a persistent sense of threat from COVID are not tools to improve engagement and collaboration.

This is no wonder as social neuroscientists will tell you that the same “minimize danger” and “maximize reward” processes our brains use to help keep us alive are also quite active in social situations. Our brains categorize stimuli as good stimuli, or those we should approach, or bad stimuli or those we should avoid.  

The good news is that knowing this and breaking it down a little, can help to create interactions and team dynamics that reduce bad stimuli and increase good stimuli. Bad stimuli, like being micro-managed, criticized in front of colleagues, or even ignored reduces blood flow to the brain’s emotional, problem solving, and creativity centers. Alternatively, good stimuli like clear expectations, empowering words, and calling someone by name, increase these.

Neuroscientists have developed five categories that trigger the approach and avoid responses from the brain. Enter the SCARF model, an easy way to remember them! If you want to improve colleague engagement and collaboration, become intentional about the following in how you relate to others.

Status is our relative importance compared to others. Be intentional about the words and titles you use to describe your staff. What does the word employee say versus the word colleague? Consider how a room is set up in a meeting. Does the person in power have the seat at the head of the table or not? A great way to improve a sense of status is to mentor, train, and educate. Likewise providing specific positive feedback leads to an approach response.

Certainty is our ability to predict the future. Our brains are hard wired to find and make sense of patterns. It is one way it functions efficiently. It is also why new situations and changes can be tiring as they require our brains to do more work. When placed into circumstances of repeated uncertainty our brains shift into overdrive initiating an avoid response. When entering into a time of uncertainty, acknowledging what is unknown while reminding colleagues what you do know helps to balance out the threat. Adding genuine, positive feedback and improving one’s sense of status further boosts a counteractive positive response. When approaching change, offering clear expectations and timelines, improves the sense of certainty.

Autonomy relates to our sense of control over our circumstances. In essence, do we have choices that can lead to our benefit or are we trapped? It is important to note that any time a colleague is working in a team their sense of autonomy is diminished. Thus, intentionality is particularly important with team building. Offering people choices, even if the choices are both negative, will elicit a more positive response. Having clear policies, job descriptions, reporting structure, and expectations for all serves to improve autonomy.

Relatedness is our sense of safety among others. The level of threat one perceives comes from feeling inside or outside of a group. During these remarkably divisive times, it seems all people are being made to feel on the inside or the outside of one group or another. Creating a sense of inclusion in the workplace is more important than ever. Looking someone in the eye when you talk to them, using their name, and shaking their hand are all ways to create a maximized reward response in the brain. Smaller groups feel safer than larger ones, a consideration for those seeking to improve collaboration in the workplace. Mentors, buddy systems, and informal times for interacting around food or activities all can lead to an approach response. This response also leads to building trust, an important dynamic in all relationships.

Fairness is our perception of fair exchanges between people. This one runs deep. When someone perceives an exchange as being unfair, they are less likely to feel empathy in their suffering and more likely to feel pleasure if they are punished. In short, a lack of fairness can be a compassion killer and can quickly unravel workplace relationships. Transparency and clear communication are two strategies to generate a more positive sense of fairness. Documented pathways to promotion and clear expectations also generate an environment that will be perceived as fairer. In teams, allowing the team to set the expectations for the team can be a good way of creating a positive response.

The reactions our brains have to these good and bad stimuli occur in deep parts of our brains, in a fraction of a second, and below the level of our conscious thought. Becoming aware of these and teaching them to others is one way to build social intelligence. Creating spaces and interactions that maximize the reward response in our brains can lead to more productive, engaged, and creative colleagues. Want to learn more about leadership and the SCARF model? Register for MHS’ Neuro Leadership: Brain Basics and the SCARF Model webinar, Tuesday, April 26 1:30-2:30EST presented by Dino Signore, who has his doctorate in business psychology and is the president for the Signore Group, Inc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s