Harnessing the Power of Your Brain to Create Stronger Connections

I’m ruled by conflicting priorities. On one hand, I’m a super nerd and love soaking in new knowledge; on the other, I prefer to spend my free time catching up with friends and family, listening to music, and staying active. It’s challenging for me to dedicate significant time for deep reading, for investigation. In an effort to satiate both needs, I’ve learned to focus on topics that ignite my passions: authentic leadership, partnership, and positive attitudes. If you strike one of those chords, I’m in.

It took all of two sentences for David Rock to hook me on neuroleadership:

“In a world of increasing interconnectedness and rapid change, there is a growing need to improve the way people work together. Understanding the true drivers of human social behavior is becoming even more urgent in this environment.”

Unless you are like Milton, banished to the basement without your red stapler, chances are you work with at least a few people on a regular basis. Your interactions with those people can (and do) have a tremendous impact on your day: when conversations go well, you’re more likely to be in a better mood (and thus more productive, focused, and generally tuned in). If you have a horrible exchange with one or more people, you may feel yourself pulled into a whirlwind of wonder: why did that go so horribly? What could you have done differently? Why can’t you stop thinking about it? And – oh no – what will you do when you have to see that person again?

With a little help from our friend science, you can learn how to minimize threat (stress) and maximize reward (happiness) in social situations. In fact, your brain does it already – you simply have to harness its power.

Let’s get nerdy.

In a world where we are arguably over stimulated, we are constantly searching for ways to simplify. Our brain needs to minimize threat while maximizing reward in order for us to survive.

Cue the amygdala!

A very small, very important part of our brain, the amygdala plays the star role in instantaneously identifying a stimulus as a threat or as a reward. When the amygdala perceives a threat, we enter survival mode: we react defensively, we avoid risks, and we process less of our environment. If, however, the amygdala senses a positive situation, we identify more options, we experience positive emotions, and we are more fully engaged with the task at hand.

Here’s the really cool part: social neuroscience teaches that our social experiences draw upon the very same brain networks as our primary survival needs. Our brain reacts the same way to a stressful social situation (say, a particularly challenging conversation with a colleague) as it does to a physically-threatening situation (being chased by a bear in the woods). The fact that you walk away from that horrible conversation with sweaty palms and a racing heart – you’re not being overdramatic or overemotional, your brain is merely trying to keep you alive. No big deal.

Using this knowledge, David Rock and his team narrowed down five drivers of human social behavior: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness – SCARF, for short. While we each have all five within us, we tend to feel strongest about one or two. Each driver has a powerful influence on collaboration, depending on one’s perceived threat or reward status at any given time:

  1. Status refers to a person’s importance relative to others. Not surprisingly, this is one of the easiest threat-responses to trigger, as we are all keenly aware of who is around us and the hierarchy of our role within the larger picture. For anyone who has a strong emphasis on status, focus on continual learning and development to remain in a reward state. Give genuinely positive feedback, especially on important projects and tasks.

  2. Certainty refers to a person’s ability to predict the future. While not many of us have a crystal ball, it’s important to establish clear expectations for those who value certainty. These folks also prefer that larger projects are broken into smaller steps for extra clarity.

  3. Autonomy refers to a person’s perception of exerting control over the environment. While it’s not always possible to have total control, it is important to feel as though one has a choice. To increase reward within this category, allow for control even in smaller areas (i.e. here are two choices, which would you prefer?)

  4. Relatedness refers to the degree which people feel a sense of connectedness to those around them. Find ways to increase the trust in relationships between colleagues by introducing safe opportunities for interaction.

  5. Fairness refers to the perception of fair exchanges between people. Though it is largely based on emotions rather than rational thought processes, fairness can be increased by becoming more transparent and communicative when making decisions.

Understanding our threat and reward triggers within each of these areas helps us to react to situations accordingly. We can better regulate our emotions if we know what sends us into a tailspin of frustration. We can avoid the social shut down.

I’ll use myself as an example - my top three drivers are certainty, relatedness, and fairness. I know that I react strongly to inconsistencies in planning or expectations, the feelings of disconnection or isolation, and/or if I believe a decision has been made unfairly.

When I sense the symptoms of a threat state quickly approaching, I make myself pause to evaluate what I need to diffuse the situation. The short time I spend identifying the stressor helps my brain to process the threat, rather than devolve into straight-up panic mode.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always easy, and sometimes the alarm bells ring loud and clear anyway. Last week I received a message at the end of a very long day indicating there was a high probability for one of my events to significantly change yet again. Plans I’d already re-negotiated were about to once again be ambiguous at best. I could feel my temperature rise and my defenses kick in as I tried to make sense of the new intel. I was Fired Up!

I took a deep breath. Ok, ok – I took several. I spoke with my manager for a few minutes to gain clarity on both the decision (why is this happening?!) and the new direction (where do we go from here?). Within a few minutes, I was back in action. Although I was still ruffled by the distraction, I was also ready to take on the new challenge.

Using the SCARF framework, I am better equipped to explain my needs when I’m feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. We are more successful as individuals and as a team when we communicate effectively.

So where do you go from here? How does SCARF impact your collaborations?

Take some time to reflect on interactions that make an impact, whether they are particularly awesome or especially challenging. Think about the key components that triggered your reaction in that moment: do you typically react most to threats in status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, or fairness? What will help you minimize the threat in those areas in the future? Give yourself a moment to recall this information the next time you’re in a stressful situation and use it to keep yourself cool – literally and figuratively, of course.

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