Leadership and change – SCARF way


Social interactions are developed according to the way our brain sees different situations as threats or rewards. If there is an anticipated reward, we go towards it; if there is an anticipated threat, we go away from it. These are known alternatively as toward responses and away responses. Personal development guru Tony Robbins uses this principle to advocate his method to change bad habits.

What are the drivers of the reward and threat responses? Dr. David Rock identified five domains that control social experience (3) and published the findings in the Journal of Neuro Leadership Journal in 2008.

These are:

Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.

I have found that these principles are already contained in the ideas of Dale Carnegie’s celebrated book ‘How to win friends and influence people,’ which was published nearly 80 years ago without the help of any scientific research like Dr.David. Dale Carnegie was a theoretical psychologist -much like Stephen Hawkins is a theoretical physicist – and Dr. David is the scientist. In a way Dr.David is approving Carnegie’s hypothesis with his neurological findings.

I would elaborate the first of these five domains, namely status, today.

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:22 NIV)

Isn’t it interesting to read the above biblical verse? It always astounds me think that there is huge hidden wisdom in some of the biblical verses. What happens when you call someone a fool is that neurologically the status of the hearer is reduced and he/ she sees it as a threat situation, the response will be to avoid you.The unfortunate result is that you sadly FAILED the very moment you called this person a fool!

Deceivers know this technique very well. They don’t need to read any book or study neuro science. The principle is already hard wired into our brains already. Soothsayers abound in typical authoritarian leadership situations where most subordinates try to curry favour with the boss by falsely praising him. what they are doing is trying to raise the status of the boss, which is a reward for him. When he is happy, he will naturally help the soothsayers in return.

Now imagine a clever leader using the same technique for correcting wrong behaviour in the team.

He allows the team member to save face. He is aware that oftentimes a direct attempt to correct the behaviour will lead to stubborn denial and even evil plans. The subject may team up with other disgruntled workers to spread rumours, or set you up the leader for failure. Imagine that the clever leader points out the the mistake indirectly and even refers to his own similar mistakes, sometimes totally made-up! This approach has the effect of keeping the status of the offender in tact. He/ she even feels falsely superior to the boss for a time! Little does he realize that the leader is actually cleverly leading him to think like that. The denial and aggression do not show up in this case.

A clever leader will be also able to show the worker a way to improve. He may want to share some tips, but he may make it so subtle that the points will be ‘discovered’ by the subject and may even claim them as his own inventions!

Eventually the offender changes his ways with such an urgency that the team performance improves substantially. Now the clever leader has the last laugh! But he would be laughing to himself and will make sure to compliment the offender for his improvements in public, which is again a status booster for him/ her.

It is difficult to practice, but if you agree with Machiavelli’s principles of power, these are some clever possible additions to them, with a remarkable difference. You can openly talk about this leadership style as a virtue, whereas Machiavelli’s methods are pure evil.

I think some of the 48 tips in the book by Robert Green (1) are gems, but they all appear as evil. Nobody can talk about actually having to practice it, although strangely, everyone uses some of these principles in everyday life, knowingly or unknowingly. Incidentally Machiavelli lived some hundred years before Shakespeare, and guess what the bard of Warwickshire has to say about Machiavelli? ‘A bastard’.


1. Robert Green (1998), 48 Laws of Power, Viking Books

An amazing book that substantially improves our understanding of human behaviour.

2. http://www.scarf360.com/about/index.shtml

I came across this link above that explains the SCARF model succinctly.

3. http://www.scarf360.com/files/SCARF-NeuroleadershipArticle.pdf

The original article by Dr. David Rock can be found in the above link. A must-read for those who like to know more.


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