How to design a brain-empowering work culture

Rasmus Noah Hansen
Jun 9, 2020 · 6 min read

Let’s start by painting some scenarios

Have you ever felt the resentment of a change you don’t understand why or how your leaders want to take on?

Have you ever felt frustrated with a micro-managing boss?

Have you ever felt uncomfortable the first few weeks at a new job when you know absolutely no-one?

Have you ever been angry by the fact that your male colleague earns more than you despite having the exact same job?

Chances are that you’ve experienced one or more of these scenarios — on one or several occasions. The results of this are often lost motivation, damaging arguments with leaders and colleagues, or maybe even changing your job.

Research from Gallup shows that 85% of people globally are either unengaged or actively disengaged at work. One of the main reasons behind these depressing numbers can be found in the way we collaborate with each other and design and operate our organizations.

In this article, I will equip you with SCARF, a useful concept from the world of Neuroscience that explains how your brain reacts to your experiences at work. I will also provide you with an idea for how you can increase your awareness to improve how you collaborate with others and how you and your organization can design work experiences and change initiatives that takes people's needs for “brain-safety” into consideration.

The era of knowledge workers

Most of us get hired for our ability to solve problems, collaborate, think creatively, or understand complicated systems, but research clearly indicates that our emotions have a serious effect on our ability to make the best use of our brains.

To put it in other words:

One study showed that the group that felt scared was up to 50% less creative compared to the group that felt safe.

Minimize Threats and Maximise Rewards

Put in very simple terms — this happens because your brain is evaluating the world and the choices it can make as something that will maximize reward and minimize risk. Worth mentioning that the desire to minimize risk is by far the greatest of the two, therefore the fantastic quote “people run away, but go towards”.

This mechanism stems from the times, where a lot of our choices impacted our chance of survival, such as fleeing from animals, improving your position in your tribe, or getting food.

In today’s society, our brain still measures decisions as potential threats or rewards, but because our world drastically improved from fighting other tribes or fleeing from animals, these brain mechanisms are now being applied to a very different context.

Fighting an enemy tribe over land now means fighting the sales department over bonuses. Being afraid of potentially deadly animals is now seen in how we crave certainty in our lives — whether it’s knowing when the train arrives or what will happen to you during the “transformation” at work.

How our feelings affect our work

When you perceive a situation as a primary threat, your cognitive abilities are limited which as a result makes work much more difficult — whether it’s problem-solving, communication, collaboration, etc.

If we instead perceive a situation as a potential reward you will feel safe and thereby more confident, productive, empowered, creative, and curious — thereby making work easier.

In our work at eliot, a key pillar to improve our clients’ culture, collaboration, and creativity is to make sure the people of the organizations feel safe — safe with us, their colleagues, and the potential change journey we are on together.

How we try to minimize threats
In many organizations, people’s default response to minimize risk is by avoiding situations like having conflicts, being vulnerable and showing emotions, trying something new, or letting go of power and autonomy throughout the organization. All of which are damaging our ability to share thoughts and ideas, to build empathy for and trust between each other, to have an innovative mindset — the things organizations need to stay competitive and retain talent.

The reason why we see these situations as potential threats can be linked to how our brain has an extreme social need and sense because we as newborn babies are so reliant on people taking care of us.

The SCARF model, created by Prof. David Rock, is “a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others”, that indicates how our brain categories the importance social needs similar to your needs for food and water

Creating a Brain-Safe work culture

We can use SCARF as a framework for our conversations and understanding around how we design safety in our workplaces and how we collaborate effectively with each other. Some of the questions we could ask ourselves are:

Status. How do our organizational structure and titles affect peoples’ perceptions of status when collaborating? How do titles and hierarchy impact how feedback is received? How does top-down decision-making from management affect how people understanding the reasoning of it?

Certainty. How can we create a perception of certainty even though the future is unknown? How does transparency vs secrecy affect how people feel?

Autonomy. Can our people take their own decisions or is bureaucracy in the way? Do we have servant leaders or micro-managing leaders?

Relatedness. How do we support relationships and build trust in our organization? Do we see our colleagues as friends or foes?

Fairness. How do we design equal opportunities and benefits for all employees? Do we have a gender pay gap? How does the bonus structure affect how we collaborate with each other.

These are just some of the aspects of how you can intentionally design your work culture and collaboration to create a safe environment for people to thrive.

Whether people perceive a situation, a change, conflict, feedback, questions as a potential threat or reward to their experience of SCARF will determine your success with developing, adapting, or changing their organization and ways of working.

Said with other words, you need to do everything you can to make the people of your organization feel safe if you want to make any successful change or simply let people do their best work.

Disclaimer

I’m not a Neuroscientist but an organizational designer with a profound interest in neuroscience and work culture. This article is my reinterpretation of the studies and books I’ve read, and the conversations I’ve with “experts” within Neuroscience (big thanks to Eva Hamboldt and Jessica Nicholson) about its effect on how we experience and behave at work. If you are curious to learn more about the impact of Neuroscience at work, see the list of material I’ve gathered at the end of this article.

eliot is an org. culture agency on a mission to improve life at work. If you’re curious to know more about how we can work together, drop us an email at hi@eliot.works or head to our website www.eliot.works.

Relevant Books:

Your Brain at Work, by David Rock

Behave, by Robert Sapolsky

The Leading Brain, by Friederike Fabritius & Hans W. Hagemann

Other Relevant Reading:

http://web.archive.org/web/20100705024057/http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf

Relevant Videos

eliot.works

eliot is an organisational culture agency on a mission to improve lives at work.

eliot.works

If you want a culture where your teams are effective, healthy, and resilient, you need to stop talking culture and start doing culture. eliot helps you start doing the things you say you want to do. We implement, teach, and develop the methods, rituals, and shared beliefs need

Rasmus Noah Hansen

Written by

Org. Designer and Co-Founder at eliot.

eliot.works

If you want a culture where your teams are effective, healthy, and resilient, you need to stop talking culture and start doing culture. eliot helps you start doing the things you say you want to do. We implement, teach, and develop the methods, rituals, and shared beliefs need

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store