Harness the Power of Your Brain to Improve Your Interactions

A colleague and I were laughing together in our work kitchen for several minutes before she was able to squeak out, “has anyone ever told you that you wear your emotions on your sleeve?” I acted shocked, dismayed, flabbergasted: “what?! Never!”

It’s true, as you may have guessed. I express my emotions freely as part of my quest in authentic living. I have learned, however, the importance of reading the situation and reacting appropriately.

Last month I wrote a post detailing how we can use David Rock’s SCARF framework to understand our own reactions in social situations. As a short recap, SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness – these are the five main drivers behind our social behavior. Our brains’ physical reaction to each of these drivers impacts our perception of the situation, and thus our response. If we feel threatened in any one of these areas, especially those that are most important to us, we have a tendency to shut down. On the flip side, if we feel supported in the areas we value most, we are unstoppable. Our feelings and attitudes in the situation are dictated by the neural networks in our brain. Science is so cool.

Let’s get nerdy – again.

Whereas my previous post focused on what we can do to regulate and understand our own reactions to situations, the framework can also help us understand our interactions with colleagues, students, and team members. None of us works alone on an island; we rely on others to help us accomplish our tasks. We get by with a little help from our friends, right?

Research shows that we “have a fundamental need to belong, are incredibly sensitive to [our] social context, and are strongly motivated to remain in good standing with [our] social group and avoid social exclusion” (Rock and Cox, 2012). We are all wired to connect with others, and we want to keep the peace.

So why does working with others cause so much anxiety? Ask five different people, you’ll likely get five different answers. There’s no one easy solution because the answer is based on what we think is most important. A person who is driven by status may react poorly if their competency or authority is questioned, whereas someone who prioritizes fairness may worry about a balanced work load. As I value certainty and relatedness, it is both the loss of control and the fear of discord that make me most nervous.

How can we overcome our fears to maximize connection and collaboration? I use the SCARF framework to recognize the needs of the team, communicate my needs, and adjust my behavior accordingly.

To simplify, I read the situation and respond appropriately. With some practice, you can do this, too. It’s not magic or trickery (no need to study at Hogwarts, I promise). It is learning to listen and act with intention, rather than from habit.

We must be mindfully present when we are working with others and create a comfortable, trusting environment to ensure the greatest performance. Let’s take a closer look at each of these:

Recognize the needs of others

While I would argue this is easiest if all of your team members know and use the SCARF framework, it’s not necessary. Ask your colleagues to describe their ideal project and listen for key words that will clue you in on their most important drivers. Pay attention to how your peers work with others and how they respond in meetings and group scenarios. What’s their first reaction when they’re feeling stressed? How do they express their emotions when they’re happy? There are always cues all around us if we are truly tuned in.

Communicate your own needs

Being a keen observer is only one portion of the puzzle. You know what makes you tick – let your peers in on it. Use SCARF as your background: “whenever I’m feeling stressed, it’s typically because I’m feeling disconnected,” or “I always want to make sure the decision is fair, so I may need more information or explanation to feel good.”

Before I move on to the third aspect, it’s worth noting that anyone can recognize and communicate proactively, in the moment, or reactively. However, it’s easiest to react when reflecting on a situation that’s already happened, and it’s hardest to do all of this while emotions are running high (either positively or negatively) in the moment. Whenever possible, talk through the team’s stressors proactively. Take a few minutes at a staff meeting to talk about a tough situation and what you would have done differently, or find some time to walk through a case study together. The more you can prepare, the better you’ll work together.

Adjust your behavior accordingly

It is human nature to assume that others will perceive the world as we do and will respond just the same. “Without some kind of awareness of other people’s motivators, managers and peers will tend to try to motivate in the way they themselves would be motivated” (Rock and Cox, 2012). Once we know what drives our colleagues, we must work to incorporate that knowledge into our everyday interactions. If we know, for instance, that someone has a need for autonomy, we may work to provide choices whenever possible and allow for alone time to work. If someone thrives on relatedness, we should find ways to connect on something non-work related.

For bonus points, consider how you can use the SCARF drivers to bring out the best in your team. Each person’s driver brings a unique perspective and focus to the mission of the organization, the goals of a project, even the daily tasks of a department or area. By feeding our internal drivers positive energy, we will increase our collective expertise, productivity, and ingenuity. After all, teamwork makes the dream work.

Cox, Christine and David Rock. “SCARF in 2012: Updating the Social Neuroscience of Collaborating with Others.” NeuroLeadership Journal Four. (2012).

About the Author: By day, Courtney Drew (who goes by Drew) works with the programs for young leaders at Rotary International, a non-profit organization focused on joining leaders to exchange ideas and make the world a better place. Her background is in student development and education; she earned her MA in Liberal Studies from Stony Brook University and her BA in History and Secondary Education from St. Norbert College. Drew’s superpowers include writing, speaking, and training on topics she cares most about: LGBTQ advocacy, leadership development, and inclusivity. She adores her partner, loves cats and live music, and sometimes pretends to like running. Connect with Drew to follow all of her fun adventures. All views and opinions presented in her posts and presentations are her own.

Courtney Drew

Rotary International