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Using S.C.A.R.E. to build resilience and engagement

This blog has been revised and updated.  It was first published on September 30, 2015 as ‘Are Your People SCARE’d’.

This week Linda Ray, presents the NeuroCapability SCARE model as a platform for understanding what goes on in your brain at work and for building resilience in your organisation.

In my work, I get to visit many organisations and what I am seeing is that engagement levels are often low or at best a bit patchy and the climate of uncertainty and pace of change is impacting on performance and well-being. A common theme across industries is people are juggling uncertainty, being asked to do more with less, there are rising levels of stress and people are change fatigued.

At NeuroCapability, we know that even knowing a bit about our basic neurobiology can be profoundly helpful in supporting people to adjust behaviour and mindset. So, how can understanding your basic neurobiology help?

Everything the brain does and every decision it helps us make is geared towards threat or reward, something designed to guarantee survival.

Dr Evian Gordon identified this as the overarching organising principle of the brain, the purpose of which is to classify the world into things that will either hurt you or help you stay alive. ‘Everything you do in life is based on your brain’s determination to minimise danger and maximise reward’. (Gordon 2008).

This means that for every stimulus we encounter, the brain will tag it as either good (reward) or bad (threat) and consequently choose to engage (approach) or disengage (avoid). Both threat and reward are primary motivators: we avoid threats and we approach rewards.

This becomes a fundamental premise in understanding what is driving behaviour in the workplace. When we experience a reward we see the reward circuitry of the brain activated. When we feel threatened the threat circuitry of our brain is activated.

Our brain is a social organ.

Our limbic system filters all responses. If we sense a social connection ‘threat’, such as being overlooked for promotion or being ignored or victimised, we can choose to suppress this feeling or to self-regulate in a number of ways; but it’s more complicated than that. Since the limbic system acts as a survival tool, it frequently over-reacts; so finding ways to reduce threats, is important in order to help keep ourselves and others in a reward state.

Life is full of complex social events such as being accepted or rejected, treated fairly or unfairly, and being esteemed or devalued by others. Our responses to these events depend primarily on our psychological interpretation of them. As leaders we can unintentionally generate a threat in any of the 5 social domains the brain pays attention to in the workplace. These 5 inter-dependent domains form the basis of our ‘SCARE’ model (significance, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and equity) .

When the brain no longer feels safe, the executive brain can be significantly impacted, resulting in lower productivity, engagement and motivation. In addressing the SCARE domains, NeuroCapability and our Alumni and students of the Neuroscience of Leadership program have repeatedly been able to improve innovation, engagement and productivity.

Let’s take a closer look at the domains our social brain pays attention to.

Significance – in any social situation we care about the degree to which we feel a significant member of a group or in relation to the contribution we bring to a group. When we feel less significant than others or feel our contribution is not of value or not valued by others this can generate a significant threat and activate our limbic brain.

Certainty – Our brain is highly geared to prediction. Uncertainty about your role or a situation or purpose causes significant uncertainty and we can use up vital resources available to our thinking brain in trying to find and create certainty.

Autonomy – no one likes being told what to do which is why micro managing doesn’t work. We like to feel we have choices over our work and destiny.

Relatedness – we are born to crave social connection and feel part of a group or tribe. When we see others as foe or not in our ‘in group’ this can generate threat given our need for social connection and belonging.

Equity – we like to feel we are being treated equitably and get a fair share. When we feel others are getting a better deal or that we are being treated in an unjust way this can generate a significant threat.

As we navigate the social world of work we experience threat or reward in each of these domains on a daily basis. The key to improving our own performance and that of others is being mindful of how easy it is to experience or generate threat in any of these domains. We can also work more mindfully to generate reward in each of these domains. When we are in a constant state of threat this impacts significantly on our capacity to make decisions, problem solve and be creative and innovative. Armed with some knowledge about our brain we can be better leaders and create a better environment in the workplace.

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