Chuck Pratt

Leadership, Psychology, Neuroscience, and SCARF

Do You Have All the Tools You Need to Deal With the Demands of Leadership?

Chuck Pratt, President, Charles Pratt Consulting, Inc.

In this article I’d like to influence you regarding the value that leaders gain from paying attention to human psychology and neuroscience, including introducing you to useful concepts like cognitive complexity and psychological mindedness, as well as psychological threats and people’s surprisingly strong reactions to them. I would also like to offer a fundamental and profound model that can serve as a powerful cognitive tool to increase your success in human interaction.

Are We In Over Our Heads?

Harvard professor and developmental psychologist Robert Kegan proposes that the ever-increasing complexity of our world is exceeding our capacity to figure it out (hence the title of his book, In Over Our Heads).

Kegan believes that people have the capacity to evolve through five stages or levels of consciousness, and he conducts a two-hour subject-object interview to determine your stage of development. In his interviews with mostly white, middle-aged, middle class, well-educated people—the privileged in our society—he has found that less than half of them have evolved past a third order of consciousness. He states that the modern world requires a fourth-order consciousness, and that the post-modern world, best represented by globalism, requires a fifth-order consciousness.

Kegan is not an easy read, and I’m not sure I completely understand all of his theory, but in my work in many different organizations, I find plenty of evidence that he is right. What differentiates third-order from fourth-order consciousness is having cognitive strategies to maneuver amidst competing demands for your time, energy, and decisions.

The Leadership Gold Mine

Leaders can develop the necessary cognitive strategies to successfully navigate increasingly stressful and complex environments by approaching human beings as psychological creatures. A core principle that heavily influences my work in coaching and developing leaders is that effective leadership requires a basic understanding of human psychology. In fact, cognitive psychology is a gold mine for the leader willing to invest some time in digging a little for the tools to help them. Increasingly, books are being written that take the science of cognitive psychology out of clinical and academic settings and place it in the hands of leaders in the form of practical tools.

Only a small percentage of leaders that I meet could be called psychologically minded (the social science term for people who are introspective about their emotions and motivations and those of others). Insightfulness about people is another way of thinking of it. It might be because, understandably so, leaders are running around fighting the brushfires burning all around their desks, or because many of the people who self-select into leadership roles have a practical, pragmatic, problem-solving style. In any case, wherever you are, it is possible to become more insightful about people.

Peering Inside the Black Box

Neuroscience is the field of research that attempts to peer inside the brain using sophisticated imaging equipment to determine which parts of the brain are activated to achieve different ends. Social neuroscience is the subset of that field that looks to see what parts of our brains are “lighting up” when we interact with others. Neuroscientists generally agree that one of the most basic organizing principles in the brain is what is known as the pleasure-pain principle—we move towards things that we like (Hšagen-Dazsģ) and away from things that we don’t (performance evaluations). This is associated with the fight or flight response, a physiological process in which the body is flooded with more than 1400 chemicals in reaction to a perceived threat, prepping the body to flee or to fight.

Psychological Threat—A Key Insight into Human Psychology

What social neuroscientists have determined is that the brain and body react in exactly the same way to psychological threat as to physical threat. For example, if you say something to someone that they perceive as disrespectful, their body and brain may react as if you threatened to kill them. This helps us understand that when we are acting from a place of good intent, like pursuing the goals of the organization, you may unwittingly say or do something that evokes a physiological response that causes staff members to react as if their life is threatened! A critical part of this is that we donít actually have to have said or done anything disrespectful; the other person only needs to perceive that we have.

Enter David Rock and SCARF

David Rock is a successful consultant, published author, and thought leader in the area of applying the lessons of neuroscience to human development, especially in training coaches to help leaders. What David Rock has contributed to the conversation is a framework for thinking about psychological threat called the SCARF model:


Put simply, if leaders behave in ways that

they will be more successful. On the flip side, if they behave in ways that cause their staff to feel a loss or reduction of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, or fairness, they will be less successful.

An Example: Giving Corrective Feedback

As a way to make the SCARF model more real and relevant, let’s apply this framework to a common leadership task, giving corrective feedback. One of the most basic rules for feedback is that it should focus on behavior, not the person, meaning that you should state what the standard is, what the performance is, and what the gap is rather than diagnose, make a judgment, or create a label for what kind of person does that sort of behavior. This approach increases your likelihood of success because it focuses on more objective data, and makes it less likely that an employee will take it personally. “Taking it personally” might be thought of as feeling a psychological threat.

Status. Every job in America has a certain level of status assigned to it, and that affects perceptions of who is “up” and who is “down.” The status employees feel may include the perception of their level of competence. To be seen as competent is a basic psychological need. If employees receive feedback that makes them feel like they are “down” in relationship to the feedback giver, they will likely react as if their very person is being threatened. From you as the leader, this might sound like, “I want to talk to you about something that you are having a problem with.” Alternatively, if you affirm employees’ overall competence, they are less likely to react. This might sound like, “I don’t want to imply that you aren’t doing a great job overall, in fact you are doing well. I’d like us to examine an aspect of your performance that could make you even more effective.”

Identifying face-saving or self-esteem-preserving comments for what they are, rather than seeing them as a sign of resistance, allows you to act to reduce the threat rather than taking steps that might escalate the reaction. Saying “I don’t want you to think that we don’t value your contribution“ is better than “You need to stop making excuses or rationalizing your behavior.”

Certainty. Even for people who like a lot of change and variety in life, for purposes of safety, the brain craves certainty. Multiple times a second, it is sampling the environment and predicting what will happen next. If you launch into a feedback conversation without advance notice, it could upset an employee’s sense of certainty. I recommend that leaders “contract” with staff about feedback. This might sound like, “I’d like to talk to you about an aspect of your performance, is now a good time?” This could also be interpreted as respectful.

Autonomy. Autonomy is about having a sense of control, to be able to make your own choices. If you tell your staff members what to do to correct their performance, it reduces their autonomy, and they are less likely to “own” the change. Conversely, if you ask, “What are a couple things that you could do differently to get different results?” they may feel increased autonomy and ownership and be more likely to change their behavior. Another approach that increases autonomy would be to ask, “Would you be willing to brainstorm with me to identify some potential approaches to achieve the desired result?”

Relatedness. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, a notion of who is “in” or “out” of a group. It includes behaviors around tribalism and team loyalty, and decisions about friend or foe. I think it relates to feelings of inclusion or exclusion. I have found that a useful way to provide feedback is to use a relevant story that is autobiographical in nature. It might sound like, “Would you be open to hearing about a time when I struggled with something similar and some strategies I used to address it?” Pointing out the impact of an employee’s behavior on the team is another way to invoke relatedness and motivate a desire for change.

Fairness. Fairness is not only perceptual, but it also is relative, meaning it is far more likely that employees will perceive that they have been treated unfairly than for them to see how they might be treating others unfairly. If you are a parent of more than one child, or if you supervise more than one person, you’ve have had lots of fairness conversations. If you provide feedback to employees using generalizations, they might perceive it as unfair. Such feedback might take the form of words like “always” and “never.” If employees accuse you of singling them out, or if they point out that you overlook the same behavior in others, these are issues around perceived fairness. As a leader, you can remind your employees that giving feedback is a responsibility that you have—it’s your job.

In a book about the practical application of his theory, How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work, Robert Kegan identifies a huge underlying assumption inherent in performance evaluation that is largely hidden, and bound to invoke a threat to fairness. That assumption is that the supervisor, by virtue of their place in the hierarchy, is somehow the authority on how the other person ought to be performing. Kegan suggests that this can be mitigated by making the performance conversation a two-way conversation. This might sound like, “I’d like to have a conversation about your performance. First, I’d like to lay out how I am viewing things, and then I’m eager to hear and to incorporate your viewpoint.”

Another guaranteed situation that evokes a strong fairness threat is when employees are told how things are without feeling like their supervisor checked with them to hear their side of the story. This is thought of as jumping to conclusions, or prejudging someone. Asking is almost always better than telling. Two-way conversations are almost always preferable to one-way communications.


I see the SCARF model as a fairly easy concept to grasp and apply. I believe it has great potential to improve human interaction—so much so that I completely rebuilt my change management workshop, making SCARF the central concept, three days before I was due to deliver it to a professional conference in Seattle.

It is my fervent wish that you find the SCARF model to be a valuable leadership tool. It is my further hope that you seek to increase your understanding of human psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive techniques, and thus “mine the gold” to make the complex task of leadership more manageable.

Chuck Pratt is President of Charles Pratt Consulting, Inc. and a member of the University Consulting Alliance, a resource for UW leaders. As such, his favorite activity is coaching leaders. He is also a frequent trainer for POD, delivering well-received and well-attended courses on topics like emotional intelligence, change management, empathy, optimism, and likeability.

Summer 2013 | Return to issue home