You're about to start a meeting when you get a text message from your boss saying the Senior Vice President of your department wants to know why we are over budget on project x.
What happens to you physically? What do you do next?
Here’s what most of us don’t do. We don’t pause and wonder how urgent this message is and whether responding to it takes precedence over the conversation in front of us.
We don’t take a deep breath, gather ourselves, remind ourselves that we’re not going to get fired if we respond in an hour or two, and then have a distraction-free, focused conversation where we practice deep listening.
Why do we make so many snap decisions that add to our stress and diminish our overall effectiveness?
Blame it on the brain and its ancient operating system with five times as many neural processes for negative thinking as positive thinking.
For years, I’ve used David Rock’s SCARF* model with my executive clients and workshop participants to help people understand why we make emotional decisions about how we spend our time and how we react to certain triggers. His incredibly accessible article Managing with the Brain in Mind is the first reading assignment I give new coaching clients.
And now, thanks to Phil Dixon, former head of the Academy of Brain Based Leadership, we have a new model that expands on SCARF. The S.A.F.E.T.Y acronym fills in some gaps and gives us a mnemonic that helps us remember the brain’s fundamental organizing principle: to move us toward safety.
S – Security
We want to know that tomorrow we will wake up with a roof over our heads, food in the cupboards, money in the bank, predictable cash flow, and good health. Threats to this security include change, uncertainty, and inconsistencies. The world and workplace are chaotic and change is unavoidable. As a leader (or parent, partner friend, etc), it’s important to remember that in the absence of information, people make things up. And because of our brain’s negativity bias, the imagined story usually isn’t pretty. So be as transparent as possible. Often, the information you share isn’t as bad as people feared. And when you’re having a bad day, let people know the source isn’t them. I once had a friend angrily accuse his wife of looking at him with disgust. She informed him that she had gas.
A – Autonomy
I have yet to meet a person who loves being told what to do. My dog? Definitely. People? Not so much.
Most people are willing to exchange some autonomy for security. For example, we submit to state and federal laws but are sensitive when laws encroach on personal freedoms.
In the workplace, people are wiling to give up some autonomy for a paycheck and benefits, but everyone has autonomy limits and, at some point, we want to make decisions for ourselves.
Practices like flexible work schedules and flexible (or unlimited) vacation days help increase autonomy in what can be a dehumanizing work environment. What to do as a manager if you can’t control policies? Instead of giving dictates, ask for input. And if you do make suggestions, offer three instead of one. Then let them decide. Even a perception of control helps reduce stress, pain, and hypertension.
Most people don’t feel like they own their work day, but are constantly responding to torrent of requests. Encourage people to have a sacred time during each day, where they are encouraged to turn off all communication devices and use the uninterrupted time any way they like. Praise people who ignore your requests during their sacred time.
Another common cause of autonomy pain? Pointless or unproductive meetings. Some ideas to adopt: 1) Structure meetings so productive conversations happen. 2) Never have a meeting solely to inform. 3) Have people stand (which leads to more productive and shorter meetings) 4) Keep meetings short and end on time or early 5)Ban PowerPoint, and 6) Consider adopting a policy where anyone can decline a meeting that doesn’t have a clear agenda and/or doesn’t detail why each person is invited.
Kids are constantly feeling autonomy threats. I remember wanting to be a grown up SO BADLY. Set my own schedule, study what I wanted (which I ended up doing anyway because I am stubborn). Despite all the accompanying responsibilities, I love having complete responsibility for myself, because my autonomy needs are so very high.
Where can you give your kids more autonomy? Where do they have so much that they feel anxious or unsupported?
F – Fairness
When people perceive something as unfair, the same part of the brain is affected as if we tasted or smelled something disgusting. Being on the receiving end of this feeling is no fun. Having someone tell you they are “disappointed” in you feels worse than their anger. At home, children are constantly feeling fairness threats, and spouses/partners can build up resentment if they don’t air and resolve perceived conditions of unfairness. In the corporate world, Performance Management systems and ‘ranking’ create an unnecessary fairness threats (and ample disgust) in employees.
One sure way to trigger a fairness threat is to offer something and not deliver it. Not sure if bonuses will pay out this year? Tell people early.
When Yahoo's former CEO declared that everyone, regardless of situation, had to work in the office every day, I thought..."they are toast." Fairness is relative.
Fairness doesn’t mean treating everyone the same.Learn what matters most and to the extent that you can, deliver it.
E – Esteem
We can think of this realm in three parts: 1) How we see ourselves, 2) how we see ourselves in relation to others and 3) our interpretation of how we think others see us. The common thread is comparison. It’s about how we compare ourselves to others and how we compare ourselves to where we think we are or should be in terms of our accomplishments.
Because of our brain’s negativity bias, we often misjudge how others perceive us. Sitting in a meeting with the boss, if she's scowling, our brain assumes we must have done something bad, when in fact, she may just have a headache. Or, maybe her resting face is a scowl.
We bombard ourselves with negative self-talk that has an undercurrent of “I’m not good enough.” Next time you think something nice about someone, tell them.
T – Trust
The need for human connection – trusting connections – is very real and very deep. Social anthropologists have found that fear of ostracism is higher than fear of starvation. Considering that our brains are still wired for tribal times, this makes sense. If you were ousted from the tribe, you were as good as dead. When people feel excluded or ridiculed, the pain center of the brain lights up. And some neuroscientist postulate that “Social pain” is worse than physical pain, because we feel it every time we remember the source of the pain.
Sadly, our ancient brains are wired to distrust. We had to evolve to detect small differences in others so we knew who was safe. Now we just misjudge the boss for a saber tooth tiger. But we can override this inclination.
One of the fastest ways to build trust and connection is to find even small similarities. Spend just ten minutes asking someone about their past and their interests and you will find something you have in common. This simple exercise can switch the brain from 'foe' to 'friend' processing. Not sure what to ask? Check out myColleague-Interview-Questions for a list of questions that are bound to start a rich conversation.
Want to be more successful at influencing others? Be genuinely likable and trustworthy. Our brain processes information from a foe (out group), on a completely different circuitry than messages from a friend (in group). If you aren't trusted and liked, you may have to resort to threats and rewards to coerce, which will likely only further erode trust.
Y - You
This is about past and present YOU.
Past:How does your inherited genetics affect who you are? Where and how you were raised and how did that shape your beliefs, tenets, values, and fears? What past experiences have greatly affected you? For example, breaking my back in a car accident at age 22 shifted my life trajectory and forced me to learn to draw boundaries and use my physical resources wisely. It also had me appreciate health instead of taking my body for granted.
Present:What is your mood? How much sleep did you get last night? Are you hungry? What are your habits of thought and behavior? What are your biases (we all have them and most are non-conscious)? What are your triggers, goals, stress level? What pain are you experiencing? Is a communication device on near you? (The latter will lower your IQ by 10 points).
Build a More Resilient a Better Brain
Fortunately, our brain is malleable and we can reshape it to be more efficient, effective, and less triggered into a stress reaction. The bad news about that is -- we are constantly shaping our brain without intention, allowing our brains to become more reactive, more easily stressed.
And when you are stressed, it’s really hard to create psychological safety for others, and it’s way to easy to get triggered by others, whether they mean to cause offense or not. We have only :03 seconds between the time our brain gets triggered and we react with expressions or words...that can’t be taken back.
Want tips for creating a calmer, more responsive, less reactive brain?
*SCARF stands for Security, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness
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