Organisational Change Management Volume 1

Framework 55 SCARF (A Neuroscience Approach)

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Based on neuroscience, ie understanding how the brain works, it is suggested that there are 5 important social qualities (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness, ie SCARF) that will minimize the threat response and enable the reward response in the brain to work in favour of a change initiative

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For humans, social encounters are important at either enhancing or diminishing our status. If people feel that they are being compared unfavourably with somebody else, the threat response is initiated, ie stress-related hormones are released such as cortisol (the feeling of low status encourages the kind of cortisol levels associated with sleep deprivation and chronic anxiety)

We are biologically programmed to care about status as it impacts on our survival. Generally high status correlates with human longevity and health

it has been found that the neural circuitry that assesses status is similar to that which processes numbers, ie

"... the circuitry operates even when the stakes are meaningless, which is why winning a board game or being the first off the mark at a green light feels so satisfying. Competing against ourselves in games like solitaire triggers the same circuitry, which my help explain the phenomenal popularity of video games..."

David Rock, 2009

It is suggested that performance reviews are seen as a threat to status unless they encourage and reward positive behaviours. Similarly, the custom of offering feedback can put people on the defensive as they perceive the person offering advice as claiming superiority. It is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.

Giving praise is an effective way of raising status. Praise lights up the same area of the brain that responds to a financial windfall. Rewarding someone who develops a new skill will have a similar effect. Values have an important impact on status.

On the other hand, organisations that value money and/or encourage competition amongst staff, will have a negative impact on staff who are not successful in these criteria.

A Craving for Certainty

The brain prefers to encounter familiar situations as it conserves its energy by relying on long established neural connections in the basal ganglia and motor cortex. Furthermore, it frees the brain to do something else, like talking while driving. On the other hand, if the brain registers something unfamiliar or uncertain it will require extra neural energy to handle this new situation as it has an aroused threat response with working memory diminished. This reduces memory, undermines performance, and disengages people.

On the other hand, mild uncertainty attracts interest and attention by increasing levels of adrenalin and dopamine to spark curiosity and energize problem-solving, ie

"...all life is uncertain; it is the perception of too much uncertainty that undercuts focus and performance. When perceived uncertainty gets out of hand, people panic and make bad decisions..."

David Rock, 2009

Management needs to work to create a perception of certainty to build confidence. Developing shared business plans, sharing the rationale for change, etc can help people feel more confident and articulating how decisions are made increases trust. In other words,

"...transparent practices are the foundations on which perception of certainty rests..."

David Rock, 2009

People function better if there is a perception of certainty and less ambiguity.

Autonomy Factor

Generally, the more people have control, the less they are stressed. In other words, the perception of greater autonomy, ie greater scope to make their own choices/decisions increases the feeling of certainty and thus reduces stress.

Relating to Relatedness

In the brain the ability to feel trust and empathise with others is shaped by whether people are part of the same social group.

When meeting a new, different person, the information in the brain moves along neural pathways that are associated with uncomfortable feelings.


" cannot be assumed or mandated, nor can empathy or even goodwill be compelled. These qualities develop only on the when people's brains start to recognize strangers as friends. This requires time and repeated social interaction..."

David Rock, 2009

With strong positive social connections, the brains begin to secrete a hormone called oxytocin.

"...this chemical, which has been linked with affection, maternal behaviour, sexual arousal, and generosity, disarms the threat response and further activates the neural network..." in positive ways

David Rock, 2009

On the other hand, loneliness and isolation are significantly stressful. The brain's reaction to this threat of lack of social contact by secreting the same neuro-chemicals that represent physical pain.


The perception of unfairness generates a strong response in the limbic system, hostility and undermining trust. People prefer a fair exchange rather than unfair rewards.

It is claimed that experiencing fairness produces reward responses in the brain similar to those that occur from eating chocolate.

In extreme cases people are willing to fight and die for causes that they believe are fair.

In organisations, the perception of unfairness does not encourage trust and collaboration. The unfairness occurs when some people are perceived to be treated differently from others. Examples of unfairness include leaders who play favourites and/or reserve privileges for selected groups, such as an old boys network

Putting SCARF into action

"...if you are leader, every action you take and every decision you make either supports or undermines the perceived levels of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness......your every word and glance is freighted with social meaning. Your sentences and guesses are noticed and interpreted, magnified and combed for meaning you may never have intended......It helps alert you to people's core concern (which they may not even understand themselves) brain is wired to respond to dangers that threaten its core concerns before it can perform other functions. Threat always trumps rewards because the threat response is strong, immediate, and hard to ignore. Once aroused, it is hard to displace......Humans cannot think creatively, work well with others, or make informed decisions when their threat responses are on high alert..."

David Rock, 2009

For example, reorganizations

- create massive amounts of uncertainty, which can paralyze people's ability to perform. To reduce the threat of uncertainty, management should share information with staff including what the future is expected to look like and its impact on staff.

- are a threat to autonomy with staff feeling a lack of control over their future. Ideally, staff should be able to make their own decisions from senior management. It is essential that senior management provide continuous support and encourage staff participation

Staff rarely support initiatives that they have no part in designing, as it undermines both their autonomy and status. This can result in unconscious sabotage.

In addressing threats to fairness, most people are not primarily motivated by money. On the other hand, they can be profoundly de-motivated by the perception of unfair compensation/reward. For example, the disproportionately increasing compensation for top management limits engagement by other staff on lower pay scales.

Activities such as micromanaging are seen as a threat to status and autonomy.

Furthermore, the suppressing of emotions tends to increase the experience of threat response in observers.

Good leaders need to have both intelligence and self-awareness. Sometimes high intelligence often corresponds with low self-awareness, ie

"...the neural networks involved in information holding, planning and cognitive problem solving reside in the lateral, or outer, portions of the brain, whereas the middle regions support self-awareness, social skills, and empathy. These regions are inversely correlated..... if you spend a lot of time in cognitive tasks, your ability to have empathy for other people is reduced simply because that part of your circuitry doesn't get much use..."

David Rock, 2009




Status (encourages thinking positively about ourselves; public recognition & praise)

Certainty (clear about expectations; sharing more information; reducing the fear of the unknown; understanding the pig picture)

Autonomy (making own decisions; more flexible workplace; reducing the amount of reporting)

Relatedness (connects at human level; working with people you know and like; increase networking opportunities with peers)

Fairness (treat each other with respect; allow more community work days)

Many great leaders are humble as this reduces the status threat; create certainty by having clear expectations about the future; increase autonomy by allowing others to make decisions; increase relatedness by being authentic and real with other people; be fair by honouring commitments

(source: David Rock, 2009)


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