A Model to Make Sense of your Office Challenges (part 1)

The SCARF that Ties

(click below to view the video or read on if you’d prefer!)

Hello and welcome to Career Tips! For the last two editions of this year, I want to share with youSCARF two articles focusing on a simple yet powerful model to make sense of your life at work.

Does this sound too good to be true?

I trust that, once familiar with the model, you will find that it is helpful to read yours and others’ reactions to events in the office as well as give you ways of coping better, notably when it comes to managing your reactions more comfortably and to engaging with others more simply and effectively. The model I will tell you about is called SCARF and it is the brain child of David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of the "The Brain at Work".

SCARF is anchored within the basic principle that our brain’s purpose is to protect us: our brain continually seeks to identify potential threats. This negative bias is at the root of our survival and we share it with all living beings gifted with a similar brains (e.g. ourl mammal brothers). When brainthe coast is clear, our brain then seeks to optimise our sense of comfort and wellbeing (a reward state).

You see in the graphic depiction above that SCARF is really an acronym for the five words of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. In this article, we will look at Certainty and Autonomy while, next month, we will focus on the remaining three words.

Overall, SCARF says that, as our brain watches out for potential threats, it worries about Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. These five words represent the five social domains against which every human experience is assessed. The brain’s negative bias is very obvious when you consider that it ponders five kinds of potential threats. Only when all questions are answered positively does our brain (and us!) relax.

The domains of Certainty and Autonomy assess how we feel about any experience from the point of the self: it is the inner dimension of human experience. In contrast, Status, Relatedness and Fairness assess how we feel about any experience from the point of view of our place in the environment in which the experience occurred: it is the external dimension of human experience.

So how can Certainty and Autonomy help you make sense of your office challenges?

Certainty is about the brain working in an associative way. In other words, the brain is a pattern-recognition machine. The first time you see a glass of water, the brain has to use a lot of energy to figure out what it is and what for. The next time around, even though the glass may be a certaintydifferent shape or colour, it is recognised as a glass by the brain and this takes no time at all for the brain to work out. See how effective this mode of operation is? The brain wants to be able to recognise what’s going on, moment to moment. When it is unsure of what is going on, it needs to allocate a lot of energy to solving that mystery. The principle of association does not just allow the brain to cope with the present but also, to some extent, predict what comes next. Certainty creates a sense of safety that the present is manageable and the future knowable to a good extent.

What can threaten Certainty in the workplace?

Let’s see: how about a feedback meeting? Even though you may expect a good chat, do you feel a bit nervous anyway? That’s your brain not having enough Certainty. Change is a huge threat to Certainty: suddenly what was known is potentially up for review. Not being clear about your work objectives threatens Certainty. Not knowing some of the people in that meeting or in that networking event can threaten Certainty. Not being sure you understood a request, a question or a statement can threaten Certainty. In short, Certainty is threatened whenever the brain cannot draw on the past to make sense of the present and thus cannot predict what the future could look like.

Can you think of past experiences at work where your sense of Certainty was threatened? I wouldn’t be surprised if you found many! What to do in response to a threat to Certainty? Gain love certaintyinformation. When you are unsure and need to regain that Certainty, ask questions and seek data which will clarify the present and enable you to come up with scenarios for the future. Most of us naturally do that in certain circumstances – for example, we usually feel we can ask questions about a change situation. However, many of us also hesitate to ask questions, for fear of appearing a fool. When you stay mum, your Certainty remains threatened for longer and that discomfort lingers. So realise that you need Certainty and take the right steps to feed that brain of yours the information it craves!

Clarity is the best friend of Certainty. When you lose your sense of Certainty, you will feel "bad" which is likely to be anxious, irritated. To feel better, make things explicit rather than implicit.  Get explanations. Challenge assumptions. Break complex problems into bite-sized chunks. Define clear goals and ask others for their expectations. And when you can get the information you need right here, right now, at least find out when that information will be forthcoming.

How about Autonomy then?

Autonomy is that sense we have that we can decide for ourselves, that we have some measure of control over our lives, that we can choose more often than not. The importance of autonomy becomes particularly clear when you consider stress. Let’s not talk shop yet: imagine that you are having your kitchen redone and the works are not progressing as planned.  If you think that cooking in your own house is fundamental and that what you can eat without your kitchen is of poor quality, autonomyyou will become more and more stressed as the works linger. If, on the other hand, you find that there are many takeout options or it is possible to use the microwave, you will cope much better with the delay. It is that sense of empowerment, that perception that you can cope which reveals your Autonomy. Autonomy is how you feel you can manage things when they don’t go your way.

Let’s discuss work again. Can you think of situations in the office which threaten your Autonomy? How about a heavy workload that you feel you can’t discuss with your manager? Or being micro-managed by your boss, being told what to do and when, without flexibility? Even being part of a team reduces Autonomy because you can’t have it all your way. Change is again liable to threaten Autonomy because it, at least temporarily, reduces your capacity to decide for yourself.

When your Autonomy is threatened, you will feel "bad", which in workplace parlance, often means disengaged, frustrated, demotivated. To feel better, focus on what you can control. Open your mind and brainstorm, maybe with friends and family, about options and discuss which one(s) would be best for you. Workplaces can be hard from an Autonomy standpoint so use your life outside work to regain a sense of Autonomy.

There you have it: a look at what can make unhappy, frustrated or anxious in the office in response to a situation or a development. From the point of view of your inner experience, this discomfort is a product of a loss of Certainty and/or of your perception of Autonomy. I hope this gives you food for thought and helps you figure out what has gone wrong when you feel uncomfortable about work. Identifying a threat to Certainty or Autonomy should also allow to devise a remedial strategy.

Does this sound like it might be helpful? As usual, I’d love to hear from you so please do feel free to comment about this article in the box below. Similarly, if you have any question or comment or want to discuss your personal circumstances, you are welcome to email me by clicking here.

If this article resonated with you, don’t hesitate to contact me for a chat where we would explore what is going on for you and what you would like to have happen. To contact me, click here.

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