Yesterday, I gave a presentation at the 2017 Mindful Leadership Forum in Sydney on how to ‘grow’ mindful leadership in organisations. One of the tools I love, and shared, was the SCARF model of social threats and rewards created by David Rock who authored ‘Your Brain at Work’. Here’s a simple overview of it.

SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Whenever one of these social dimensions is threatened, our primal response is ‘fight or flight’. It’s not surprising, given that the same area of our brain that is activated when we receive physical pain is activated when we receive social pain. It hurts and can feel like we’re in real danger.

Happily, the opposite also applies – when one of our social dimensions is ‘rewarded’, we feel positive and responsive.

Knowing this model, I am now more observant of when one of my social dimensions is threatened or rewarded, or when I threaten or reward someone elses’s.

Prior to speaking at the Forum, I was a bit nervous and a lovely friend Sam, who spoke there two years ago, gave me a good pep talk. She told me how the universe had placed me there because that was where I was meant to be, and to just be myself. It was a positive SCARF experience, and I felt really affirmed and supported.

This contrasted with a chat I’d had with a manager at work a few days prior who was disappointed with some outcomes related to a project I was running. Despite some valid observations, the way in which they were delivered left me feeling that any of my previous successes were worthless. My status, relatedness and sense of fairness were particularly challenged. I knew I was in fight or flight mode, yet still didn’t stop myself from making a couple of defensive responses.

In the days following, recognising I had been negatively ‘SCARFED’ allowed me to name what had happened, own my part in it, and disown the components I felt were not within my control. It took the weekend to regain my equanimity – I knew I was okay when I stopped thinking about it!

Being positively ‘SCARFED’ feels great. The negative experience, as noted, really does leave us feeling unsafe. Knowing this prepares us in managing it if we experience it; to sift out the feedback of value, and disregard feedback which is not valid or useful. Leaders, from my experience in working with and training them, are often unaware of the SCARF effect they have had on others. Knowing this model offers them the opportunity to operate with greater awareness and empathy.

Think about positive and negative interactions you have had with people this last couple of weeks – do you have a SCARF story to tell?