October 16th, 2012

Neuroscience (brain-based research) is rapidly expanding our options to improve motivation, productivity, social awareness, health and happiness.

Here are a few recent examples:

  • Japanese scientists found that workers watching kittens and other cute baby animals on the internet are more focused and productive the rest of the day! (from the NPR broadcast – Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me)
  • Fairness activates the same reward circuitry in our brains as when we win money, see a beautiful face, or eat chocolate! (Matthew Lieberman of UCLA)
  • A British study indicates that higher status employees (the executives) live longer than lower status employees. (The White Hall Study, British Civil Servants)

Neuroscience, the fastest growing area of scientific research, now has multiple branches. Neurogenetics is the study of our genome and disease (responsible for recent break-throughs in breast cancer classifications). A couple of other branches include Neuroeconomics (what’s up with the stock market?); Cultural Neuroscience (how can we better understand this diverse world?); Neuromarketing (why do BMW ads appeal to our sense of power while Kia ads appeal to our sense of belonging with cute little hamsters in hoodies?)

In the coaching and consulting fields, NeuroLeadership, a specialized field of study focusing on issues related to employee engagement, collaboration, change management, emotional intelligence, and all aspects of leadership development, is validating many of our existing techniques and providing insights for current and future enhancements. The field is broad and expanding. S.C.A.R.F. is one example of a field tested innovation in the employee management area. SCARF an acronym for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness was developed by David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute. The acronym identifies five factors that define people’s social experience. SCARF serves as a memory aide for leaders who can consider the extent to which the current environment activates a reward or threat response to each of these emotion-laden work place issues. Few ideas are totally new. Think of the carrot vs. stick management concept. By itself, it’s helpful. Combined with SCARF, the concept can be used to gain quantifiable improvements in employee engagement, creativity, and bottom-line results. And, if not already made clear, the selection of the five elements is based upon extensive neuroscientific research.

A little more about SCARF:

Status – Humans (and chimpanzees) are very concerned with status. The threat of the loss of status through, let’s say, a public humiliation such as the boss yelling at you in front of others causes stress. Stress muddies our thinking, causes us to make mistakes, and raises our blood pressure (you get the idea). On the other hand, an increase in status, a pay raise, or a promotion, makes us happy.

Certainty –Uncertainty in the work place causes error responses to fire in our brains. This robs us of the ability to pay attention and focus on goals. Certainty, conversely, allows us to focus on our work and move forward.

Autonomy –We like choice and choices, especially when those choices are our own. Choice feels good. Conversely, remember that over-controlling boss you once worked for?

Relatedness –Belonging to the group, being part of the ‘in-crowd’ is motivating and increases trust. (To me, those hoody-wearing Kia hamsters scream belonging to the group.) On the other hand, being an outcast is clearly punishing – think solitary confinement.

Fairness –Research shows that our brains are wired to assess fairness and to respond negatively if we feel we aren’t being treated fairly. And, it isn’t just us. In one experiment, dogs were asked to ‘shake hands’ and they received a treat when they responded appropriately. This worked well until half of the dogs were no longer offered the treat while they watched the other half continue to enjoy a treat when performing. Those dogs not receiving a treat refused to participate further.

Wait wait, hope this caught your attention. Neuroscience and NeuroLeadership are flooding our world with new insights and clues to improve our lives, our work, and our world. Stop and take notice – better yet, take action.