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The SCARF Model – How it affects agile teams

In the post ‘There Are Sabre-Toothed Tigers In Your Office‘, we discussed how our brains have evolved, and that the primal response that helped protect us from sabre-toothed tigers had changed. Our brains now see that same level of threat from domains of human social experience that we wouldn’t consider to be life or death situations. However, our brains react as if they are, releasing the same chemicals and in doing so depleting other parts of our brain of resources. 

This is bad news – because it is the other more evolved parts of our brain that we use most We rely on them to do our jobs well. When they are not functioning at 100% (because our brains Limbic System is responding to a perceived threat) our cognitive function is impacted in several ways:

  • We become poorer at complex and non-linear problem solving
  • We make more generalisations and come up with fewer options when problem solving
  • Are more likely to react defensively and treat small stressors as of they were big stressors
  • And are more likely to err on the safe side, be less innovative, creative or bold.

The 5 Domains of Human Social Experience in SCARF

David Rock coined the acronym SCARF to describe the 5 domains of human social experience that the brain perceives to be as dangerous as a sabre-toothed tiger running loose in our office: They are threats to our Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. 

While threats to these generate a negative ‘Threat’ response, the brain is also capable of responding to changes in these factors with a positive ‘Reward’ response. This means that we can take steps to both mitigate the negative impact and promote the positive. Unfortunately the threat response is more powerful and longer lasting than the award response, so the SCARF threats are more dangerous.

Let’s explore these domains in a little more detail, and consider how agile teams affect them.

Status 

We care deeply about how we are perceived and our status, although it is the relative status that is most significant. Our brain maintains an internal ranking system and is constantly on the alert for things that will move us up, or especially down that ranking. We can maintain many different ranking, both external – such as ours relative status in our team, or how our friends perceive us – and internal, such as whether our last run was a personal best or a shocker.

A move up in status releases dopamine and makes us feel good. But reduction in status – whether that’s your boss not smiling at you in the morning causing you to wonder what you have done wrong, or someone asking “Can I give you some feedback?” will trigger the threat response and light up the same parts of the brain as physical pain.

Very hierarchical organisations create lots of opportunities for status triggers, whether that’s promotions, invitations to meetings or even just hearing yourself (or others) described as the ‘lead’. In flatter hierarchies, these are less available, but other status triggers can be created. For example, asking for advice,  or giving thanks can trigger a boost in status. Collective accountability can remove review or approval stages that can reduce status. Conversely, bringing less experienced staff into a team and treating them equally, or using the same job titles for junior and senior staff can affect status negatively.

Certainty

It is really important to your brain that it knows what’s going on, and can be certain about things. For example, when you reach to pick up a cup, your brain knows exactly what to expect – how hard to grip; what weight it will be; what temperature. If any of these things are not what you expect, your brain immediately goes into crisis mode. It puts all its energy into dealing with this error condition. Your goal has now switched from whatever it was to resolving the error. 

When the brain is right in its prediction, it feels good. This is one reason why we find music with repetitive beats and choruses pleasurable. It is also why having plans and strategies that describe certain outcomes feels good. And why agile’s habit of deferring decisions until they are necessary can make people intensely uncomfortable. This is still true when we expect those plans to go wrong – the very act of having them tricks the brain into perceiving certainty, triggering a reward response. 

Autonomy

We like to think we have control over events. It doesn’t even have to be complete control. Even offering a choice of two outcomes is better than being told what to do – this can be useful with children. Giving complete control over what to have to eat might not be a smart idea, but they will be far happier given a choice of peas or carrots rather than being told they must eat carrots. 

Like all of these environmental factors, change is important, as is perception. Therefore removing choice will trigger the threat response, even if you are still left with more autonomy than other people. Similarly, realising that others have more autonomy than you do will also be perceived as a threat, even though your actual autonomy hasn’t changed.

Agile teams can be very good with autonomy, but high levels of autonomy in a team can lead to other stakeholders feeling out of control, and trigger negative status and certainty. Ideally, we want everyone to have some autonomy and some certainty. This can be achieved by combining autonomy with alignment – where defined goals are agreed, so providing comfort for the stakeholders. But the team still leave sufficient autonomy to decide how they will meet the goal. This is the equivalent of saying to your children ‘a third of your plate needs to be vegetables – you can decide which ones you want to eat’. Henrick Kniberg describes this well in his ‘Aligned Autonomy’ cartoon.  

Relatedness

Our brains still think we are in a tribe; and assume that our survival depends on remaining within it. Today, those social groups still exist and we still attach high importance to them. We are constantly assessing whether people are friends or foes. When we are surrounded by friends, the reward centres are triggered and our cognitive performance improves. If we perceive that those around us are not in our group, then the threat response is triggered. We behave differently towards them, act more guarded and are less likely to work well with them, even if rationally we want to.

This is why social interaction is important. Conversations about hobbies, television or other non-work topics are valuable, and identifying similarities or shared interests increases relatedness. It is no coincidence that this will also create psychological safety within a team, which Google’s Project Aristotle found to be the most important attribute of high performing teams. 

Agile teams value collaboration within teams and with customers, which will improve relatedness. So too will shorter iterations, more opportunities to get together and relaxed, informal events. This is easier when co-located, so having remote teams can cause problems, especially if a previously co-located team becomes remote.

Being part of many teams can make you feel like you aren’t part of any, particularly when team events are restricted to the full time members of the team. This can be a challenge for specialists, leaders, consultants or those in roles where they are involved only occasionally.

The impact of relatedness as a threat trigger is most keenly felt in minorities. Many organisations strive for diversity, particularly in terms of gender and ethnicity. What is far more important than having a diverse team is inclusion within that team – any value in having a diverse team will quickly dissipate if some of those in the team don’t feel included. This is also true for team members who don’t feel comfortable sharing an element of their lifestyle with their team; for instance their sexuality, religion or politics. And because the threat response is triggered by perceptions of a lack of relatedness, it’s not just what the team thinks it is doing to be more diverse and inclusive, but how the team members feel.

Fairness

Humans care deeply about fairness, and in particular about our perception over whether things are fair or not. Very often it isn’t the absolute value of something that matters to us. This is true in a reward sense as much as a threat sense. We may be more pleased to gain a saving of 50p than £10 if the context of the 50p saving is from a total price of £2 where the £10 saving is from a £1000 purchase.

Whereas fair exchanges generate intrinsic motivation, unfair exchanges stimulate the threat response and even feelings of disgust toward the other party. This perception of unfairness can be financial, but it can also be things like rules being applied differently, teams having different targets or company values being applied differently.

The perception of unfairness can often melt away when we know why there are differences. This requires high levels of transparency, like we find in good agile teams. Without knowing the context, it is easy to assume unfairness, but being open mitigates that. For example, in organisations with total pay transparency people are not all paid the same, but they know why others are paid more or less.

Because what’s important is perception rather than reality, it is also possible to trigger the fairness threat in others even when it isn’t justified. For example, where teams have different rules regarding attendance, it may be the both teams could choose to adapt their working pattern, but only one team has done so. The knowledge that we could do something but have chosen not to means the other teams choice to do so isn’t seen as unfair. 

Fairness is related to status. So, where there are hierarchies, bonus systems, ranking, power structures, etc there are many more opportunities for perceptions of unfairness. In complex and ambiguous situations, decisions relating to promotion or advancement are very often nuanced and subjective. It simply isn’t possible to set out in advance the exact conditions that must be met, which can lead to feelings of unfairness and the threat response. When it is impossible to be absolute, it’s important to be honest and transparent about it. 

Transparent, self-organising agile teams that hold themselves accountable for delivery, know each others strengths, help develop one another and are equitable in how they are rewarded are more likely to have higher levels of Fairness reward and less threat. 

Managing The Tigers

The first step to managing these tigers is to know that they are there. When I first came across David Rock’s work (on a Scrum Alliance Certified Agile Leadership class with Agile Centre), I recognised many of them from my own experiences. I hadn’t realised at the time, but I could look back and see how those situations were triggering a threat response in myself or those around me, and that was impacting our effectiveness. 

Knowing about them allows us to make changes that can either reduce the actual or perceived threat; or trigger the reward response. Ideally, we can achieve both. In doing so, we will not only reduce the threat and stress response, but we will improve our performance by allowing more of our brain’s energy to be devoted to the higher order and more complex tasks we depend on. And that extra dopamine from the reward trigger will make us feel great too!

Hopefully, this article will help you get that triple win too.

A picture of a sabre toothed tiger in an office