Reorganizations also stir up threats to autonomy, because people feel they lack control over their future. An astute leader will address these threats by giving people latitude to make as many of their own decisions as possible — for example, when the budget must be cut, involving the people closest to the work in deciding what must go. Because many reorganizations entail information technology upgrades that undermine people’s perception of autonomy by foisting new systems on them without their consent, it is essential to provide continuous support and solicit employees’ participation in the design of new systems.
Top-down strategic planning is often inimical to SCARF-related reactions. Having a few key leaders come up with a plan and then expecting people to buy into it is a recipe for failure, because it does not take the threat response into account. People rarely support initiatives they had no part in designing; doing so would undermine both autonomy and status. Proactively addressing these concerns by adopting an inclusive planning process can prevent the kind of unconscious sabotage that results when people feel they have played no part in a change that affects them every day.
Leaders often underestimate the importance of addressing threats to fairness. This is especially true when it comes to compensation. Although most people are not motivated primarily by money, they are profoundly de-motivated when they believe they are being unfairly paid or that others are overpaid by comparison. Leaders who recognize fairness as a core concern understand that disproportionately increasing compensation at the top makes it impossible to fully engage people at the middle or lower end of the pay scale. Declaring that a highly paid executive is “doing a great job” is counterproductive in this situation because those who are paid less will interpret it to mean that they are perceived to be poor performers.
For years, economists have argued that people will change their behavior if they have sufficient incentives. But these economists have defined incentives almost exclusively in economic terms. We now have reason to believe that economic incentives are effective only when people perceive them as supporting their social needs. Status can also be enhanced by giving an employee greater scope to plan his or her schedule or the chance to develop meaningful relationships with those at different levels in the organization. The SCARF model thus provides leaders with more nuanced and cost-effective ways to expand the definition of reward. In doing so, SCARF principles also provide a more granular understanding of the state of engagement, in which employees give their best performance. Engagement can be induced when people working toward objectives feel rewarded by their efforts, with a manageable level of threat: in short, when the brain is generating rewards in several SCARF-related dimensions.
Leaders themselves are not immune to the SCARF dynamic; like everyone else, they react when they feel their status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fair treatment are threatened. However, their reactions have more impact, because they are picked up and amplified by others throughout the company. (If a company’s executive salaries are excessive, it may be because others are following the leader’s intuitive emphasis, driven by subconscious cognition, on anything that adds status.)
If you are an executive leader, the more practiced you are at reading yourself, the more effective you will be. For example, if you understand that micromanaging threatens status and autonomy, you will resist your own impulse to gain certainty by dictating every detail. Instead, you’ll seek to disarm people by giving them latitude to make their own mistakes. If you have felt the hairs on the back of your own neck rise when someone says, “Can I offer you some feedback?” you will know it’s best to create opportunities for people to do the hard work of self-assessment rather than insisting they depend on performance reviews.