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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Results, Relationships, Leadership and the Brain


One thing I've learned in my years as an executive coach is that you can't convince a leader who is heavily focused on results to work on relationship building skills just because it's the "right thing" or a "nice thing" to do. To motivate the client to change, you have to make a direct connection as to how stronger relationship skills will support the client in getting the results they're looking for. The results oriented leader usually needs evidence of how relationships can help him achieve what he wants to achieve.

So, it was with great interest that I read David Rock's article, "Managing with the Brain in Mind," in the latest issue of Booz and Company's Strategy + Business magazine. Rock is an executive coach specializing in the connections between neuroscience and leadership. He is the author of Quiet Leadership and the forthcoming book, Your Brain at Work. In his S+B article, Rock opens with the story of recent MRI based research that demonstrates that people who feel rejected or treated unfairly activate the same regions of their brain as people who are taking a literal blow to the head. The brain's responses to relational and physical attacks are quite similar.

Rock quotes a neuroscientist who says the link between social discomfort and physical pain makes sense "because, to a mammal, being socially connected to caregivers is necessary for survival." In an economic environment where people are naturally worried about the future, this strikes me as a very important thing for leaders to pay attention to. Rock offers a helpful acronym, SCARF (which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness), which can help leaders better understand and act on the relationship factors that people naturally need to have addressed. He outlines a number of ideas in his article about how to act on these needs. Building on Rock's model, I'll offer a few of my own here:
Status: Perceived differences in status can make people feel threatened and, as a result, their performance can drop. Leaders can counteract this natural tendency by setting up systems and processes to encourage internal collaboration rather than competition. An even simpler approach is to offer praise and recognition for good work at all levels of the organization.

Certainty: Particularly in uncertain times, leaders cannot over communicate. Be clear in your communications about what you do and don't know. Keep people engaged and informed along the way. If you're leading a larger organization, make sure your leadership team keeps ongoing communication with the troops at the top of their list of priorities.

Autonomy: People feel agitated and threatened when they're micromanaged. Once you've set the goals, give people the space to come up with their own solutions. This is in line with my own prescription for next level leaders to pick up defining what to do and let go of telling how to do it. People will be more productive and learn more as a result.

Relatedness: People need to know and trust each other to work effectively together. As Rock points out, you can't expect people to work well together without devoting some time and effort to helping them form as a team. Take the time to help them understand how they relate to each other as people and teammates and not just a group of people working on the same task. There's an old saying that you have to go slow to go fast. Invest the time up front in forming the team and you can shorten or skip the storming stage to get to the norming and performing phases.

Fairness: One of the biggest reasons that people feel a situation is unfair is when they are unaware of what criteria were used to make a decision. (That seems to be equally true for situations where people either gain or lose something.) Whenever you can, share the criteria that you and the leadership team have used to make major decisions. Of course, to share the criteria, you have to be clear in your own mind first as to what they are. If you can't figure out a way to explain the criteria to others, that's a pretty good indication that you're not ready to implement the decision.

Thanks to David Rock for his work and an interesting article. What were your takeaways from his SCARF model? What tips do you have for dealing with the needs of others around Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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