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Published: August 27, 2009

 
 

Managing with the Brain in Mind

Playing for Fairness

The perception that an event has been unfair generates a strong response in the limbic system, stirring hostility and undermining trust. As with status, people perceive fairness in relative terms, feeling more satisfied with a fair exchange that offers a minimal reward than an unfair exchange in which the reward is substantial. Studies conducted by Matthew Lieberman and Golnaz Tabibnia found that people respond more positively to being given 50 cents from a dollar split between them and another person than to receiving $8 out of a total of $25. Another study found that the experience of fairness produces reward responses in the brain similar to those that occur from eating chocolate.

The cognitive need for fairness is so strong that some people are willing to fight and die for causes they believe are just — or commit themselves wholeheartedly to an organization they recognize as fair. An executive told me he had stayed with his company for 22 years simply because “they always did the right thing.” People often engage in volunteer work for similar reasons: They perceive their actions as increasing the fairness quotient in the world.

In organizations, the perception of unfairness creates an environment in which trust and collaboration cannot flourish. Leaders who play favorites or who appear to reserve privileges for people who are like them arouse a threat response in employees who are outside their circle. The old boys’ network provides an egregious example; those who are not a part of it always perceive their organizations as fundamentally unfair, no matter how many mentoring programs are put in place.

Like certainty, fairness is served by transparency. Leaders who share information in a timely manner can keep people engaged and motivated, even during staff reductions. Morale remains relatively high when people perceive that cutbacks are being handled fairly — that no one group is treated with preference and that there is a rationale for every cut. 

Putting on the SCARF

If you are a leader, every action you take and every decision you make either supports or undermines the perceived levels of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness in your enterprise. In fact, this is why leading is so difficult. Your every word and glance is freighted with social meaning. Your sentences and gestures are noticed and interpreted, magnified and combed for meanings you may never have intended.

The SCARF model provides a means of bringing conscious awareness to all these potentially fraught interactions. It helps alert you to people’s core concerns (which they may not even understand themselves) and shows you how to calibrate your words and actions to better effect.

Start by reducing the threats inherent in your company and in its leaders’ behavior. Just as the animal brain is wired to respond to a predator before it can focus attention on the hunt for food, so is the social brain wired to respond to dangers that threaten its core concerns before it can perform other functions. Threat always trumps reward because the threat response is strong, immediate, and hard to ignore. Once aroused, it is hard to displace, which is why an unpleasant encounter in traffic on the morning drive to work can distract attention and impair performance all day. Humans cannot think creatively, work well with others, or make informed decisions when their threat responses are on high alert. Skilled leaders understand this and act accordingly.

A business reorganization provides a good example. Reorganizations generate massive amounts of uncertainty, which can paralyze people’s ability to perform. A leader attuned to SCARF principles therefore makes reducing the threat of uncertainty the first order of business. For example, a leader might kick off the process by sharing as much information as possible about the reasons for the reorganization, painting a picture of the future company and explaining what the specific implications will be for the people who work there. Much will be unknown, but being clear about what is known and willing to acknowledge what is not goes a long way toward ameliorating uncertainty threats.

 
 
 
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Resources

  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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