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Neuroscience for Agile Teams: The SCARF Model

Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez

Neuroscience for Agile Teams: The SCARF Model
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We are used to hearing that “this” is about people, where “this” is the projects and processes that an organization supports, and the organization itself. For example, the Agile Manifesto says, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Thanks to psychology and neuroscience, we know that some interesting things happen inside our heads. We are more likely to make risky investments if we see smiling faces. Our perception depends on whether or not we use our own language. Our perception greatly influences whether we become passionate or neutral in a discussion. Smiling improves our mood. Our sense of danger can get confused by our physical attraction to other people (as demonstrated by a curious experiment with a suspension bridge).

Psychology and neuroscience can also help us when working with teams, and these days especially, with remote teams.

There have always been people working outside their offices and away from their peers. But recently, remote working has become the norm at an unprecedented scale. It has also caused all kinds of new problems and dysfunctions to emerge.

In 2008, David Rock published an article and resulting book based on the findings of neuroscientists in which he defined a series of dimensions around so-called “social pain”. Neuroscience explains that in social situations, we can have reactions in the brain’s center for pain even without physical pain and will respond similarly as if we were actually harmed.

The SCARF Model

David Rock summarizes the various reactions in the 5 dimensions shown here in the SCARF Model. The different sizes of the arrows represent the intensity of the two basic options. As you can see, the urge to flee is more pronounced when we are faced with a threat.

Although this model has been in circulation for more than 10 years, I often find that it isn’t greatly known, so I want to share it with you. Let’s review it each of its five dimensions:

Status

This is defined as our place in the world and how we are perceived. Feeling dismissed or diminished causes a neurological reaction in the pain centers of the brain similar to physical pain. This is not to say that we perceive it the same; that is, it doesn’t hurt like a physical blow. But internally, the brain treats these feelings the same way.

In a virtual world, when a person feels that they are not heard or when their opinions are ignored (or they feel they are ignored), they perceive themselves as undervalued with respect to others. They will disconnect from the group and from work and will respond negatively to what they perceive as threats to their place in the world.

Certainty

We crave certainty around the amount of control we have over what happens to us.

Within a team, or in a remote session, we can help mitigate uncertainty by increasing transparency. Share the agenda before the meeting so participants can anticipate the discussion that will take place and provide sufficient information about the post-session actions in which people will be involved.

Autonomy

It is already well known that this is one of David Pink’s intrinsic motivators and how unmotivating the lack autonomy can be in our work. However, neuroscience tells us that it is also painful, within the definition of pain that we are discussing.

Conversely, having mastery over our actions activates the brain’s reward centers. With a remote team, as with a face-to-face team, actions that help you actively participate in defining your work will trigger reward centers. Micro-management or constant reporting and checking-in, which is very common when teams suddenly go from face-to-face to remote, will also activate the social pain centers.

Relatedness

This refers to the degree of belonging and togetherness with a group. It is the opposite of isolation and loneliness. The best way to reduce this dimension of social pain within a team and increase the reward response is to facilitate the connections between its members. This is obviously a challenge for a remote environment.

It is a matter of using the imagination to devise activities similar to those that we would do in a face-to-face environment so that we can maintain cohesion and a sense of belonging. Several great suggestions that I’ve heard of organizations doing include holding open mic sessions to simulate sharing the same “room”, replacing the coffee machine with recurring virtual coffee meetings, and, in general, promoting actions that allow their people to establish virtual relationships.  

Fairness

This is the innate sense of justice that develops very early on in childhood and that is also present in primates, our close relatives. Feeling like we’re being being treated unfairly triggers very strong reactions. Here, the social pain is very close to physical pain.

Transparency, clarity, openness, and exposing the demands, needs, and expectations of others will help to develop the empathy needed to facilitate fairness in the treatment of people. In general, anything that encourages mutual acceptance favors this dimension.

More Neuroscience

David Rock’s work goes far beyond the SCARF model and includes managing emotions, memory, cognitive ability, and human limitations. He is also developing a field of knowledge called neuroleadership, which, interestingly, does not enjoy the same acceptance as the SCARF model.

Deep down, SCARF is a narrative (and as such, subject to narrative fallacy); it’s a simplification of reality that helps us manage and move forward. In the worlds of coaching and team management, the advantage of applying SCARF is that it resonates easily in many of the social pains we all face. It takes advantage of confirmation bias. How can it not sound good that our brain favors autonomy or the creation of a safe environment between people? SCARF has all the scientific evidence you need to certify it!

Like other models, practices, and techniques, understanding SCARF is not the same as applying it. But when you properly manage the situation you are in, when you are aware that it is possible and you can understand how to apply it, both you and your team can benefit from it!

— Alonso

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About the Author

Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez, Netmind Lead Expert in Enterprise Agility, has over 25 years of experience and a successful track record of increasing personal and team productivity through agile methods. His knowledge spans agile related methods of Scrum, Kanban, DevOps, SAFe, Management 3.0, and Lean into software engineer areas such as cloud, video, and content management. and has played many roles in the software industry, including Developer, Consultant, QA, Project Manager and Department Manager. As an instructor, his objective is to help students gaining new skills and knowledges; as coach and mentor, he helps them overcome challenges and difficulties by putting in practice new ways of working and organizing. He is passionate about innovation, future forecasting, and overall agile philosophy, frameworks, and methods. Alonso is certified and experienced Scrum Master, Product Owner and Agile Coach. Author of two books and several articles about Agile methods and practices. Mountain bike, nature, cinema, traveling and photography are his other passions. Connect with Alonso on LinkedIn.

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