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Published: August 27, 2009


Managing with the Brain in Mind

In a previous article (“The Neuroscience of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2006), brain scientist Jeffrey Schwartz and I proposed that organizations could marshal mindful attention to create organizational change. They could do this over time by putting in place regular routines in which people would watch the patterns of their thoughts and feelings as they worked and thus develop greater self-awareness. We argued that this was the only way to change organizational behavior; that the “carrots and sticks” of incentives (and behavioral psychology) did not work, and that the counseling and empathy of much organizational development was not efficient enough to make a difference.

Research into the social nature of the brain suggests another piece of this puzzle. Five particular qualities enable employees and executives alike to minimize the threat response and instead enable the reward response. These five social qualities are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness: Because they can be expressed with the acronym scarf, I sometimes think of them as a kind of headgear that an organization can wear to prevent exposure to dysfunction. To understand how the scarf model works, let’s look at each characteristic in turn.

Status and Its Discontents

As humans, we are constantly assessing how social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. Research published by Hidehiko Takahashi et al. in 2009 shows that when people realize that they might compare unfavorably to someone else, the threat response kicks in, releasing cortisol and other stress-related hormones. (Cortisol is an accurate biological marker of the threat response; within the brain, feelings of low status provoke the kind of cortisol elevation associated with sleep deprivation and chronic anxiety.)

Separately, researcher Michael Marmot, in his book The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity (Times Books, 2004), has shown that high status correlates with human longevity and health, even when factors like income and education are controlled for. In short, we are biologically programmed to care about status because it favors our survival.

As anyone who has lived in a modest house in a high-priced neighborhood knows, the feeling of status is always comparative. And an executive with a salary of US$500,000 may feel elevated...until he or she is assigned to work with an executive making $2.5 million. A study by Joan Chiao in 2003 found that the neural circuitry that assesses status is similar to that which processes numbers; 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 may help explain the phenomenal popularity of video games.

Understanding the role of status as a core concern can help leaders avoid organizational practices that stir counterproductive threat responses among employees. For example, performance reviews often provoke a threat response; people being reviewed feel that the exercise itself encroaches on their status. This makes 360-degree reviews, unless extremely participative and well-designed, ineffective at generating positive behavioral change. Another common status threat is the custom of offering feedback, a standard practice for both managers and coaches. The mere phrase “Can I give you some advice?” puts people on the defensive because they perceive the person offering advice as claiming superiority. It is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.

Organizations often assume that the only way to raise an employee’s status is to award a promotion. Yet status can also be enhanced in less-costly ways. For example, the perception of status increases when people are given praise. Experiments conducted by Keise Izuma in 2008 show that a programmed status-related stimulus, in the form of a computer saying “good job,” lights up the same reward regions of the brain as a financial windfall. The perception of status also increases when people master a new skill; paying employees more for the skills they have acquired, rather than for their seniority, is a status booster in itself.

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  1. John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (W.W. Norton, 2008): A scientific look at the causes and effects of emotional isolation.
  2. Michael Marmot, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity (Times Books, 2004): An epidemiologist shows that people live longer when they have status, autonomy, and relatedness, even if they lack money.
  3. David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long (HarperBusiness, 2009): Neuroscience explanations for workplace challenges and dilemmas, and strategies for managing them.
  4. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2006: Applying breakthroughs in brain research, this article explains the value of neuroplasticity in organizational change.
  5. David Rock, “SCARF: A Brain-based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others,” NeuroLeadership Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, December 2008, 44: Overview of research on the five factors described in this article, and contains bibliographic references for research quoted in this article.
  6. Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman, with K.D. Williams, “Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion,” Science, vol. 302, no. 5643, October 2003, 290–292: Covers the Cyberball experiment.
  7. Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman, “The Pains and Pleasures of Social Life,” Science, vol. 323, no. 5916, February 2009, 890–891: Explication of social pain and social pleasure, and the impact of fairness, status, and autonomy on brain response.
  8. NeuroLeadership Institute Web site: Institute bringing together research scientists and management experts to explore the transformation of organizational development and performance.
  9. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed.
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