by Karl W. Reid, Ed.D.

Dr. Karl Reid

The human brain is a social organ. Its physiological and neurological reactions are directly and profoundly shaped by social interaction.” David Rock. 

I’m fascinated by the brain, a captivation that began nearly 15 years when I stumbled on Po Bronson’s 2007 article, “Snooze or Lose”. In his New Yorker piece, Bronson discusses the relationship between sleep deprivation and learning (or lack thereof). I was nearing the end of my doctoral studies in education and was just discovering “neurocognitive” connections and underlying mechanisms that influence human behavior.

In Managing with the Brain in Mind, David Rock ties these concepts to my latest topical rabbit hole, belonging. In his article, Rock explains how managers can foster a sense of belonging by reducing neurological “threat responses” that occur when we encounter something or someone new or even, for example, when we’re about to receive “feedback” from our supervisors. Researchers have learned that the threat response – the mentally taxing “fight or flight” mechanism in the limbic system of the brain associated with emotions like fear and anxiety – can also be triggered in social situations by our perceptions of the way we are treated. A threat response impairs analytical thinking and pro-social feelings like empathy, understanding, and respect.

Organizationally, leaders can foster a workplace climate that stimulates the oppositive response, a so-called “reward response” that activates the executive region of our brain associated with working memory, analytical reasoning, creativity, and problem-solving.

Rock writes, “When leaders make people feel good about themselves, clearly communicate their expectations, give employees latitude to make decisions, support people’s efforts to build good relationships, and treat the whole organization fairly, it prompts a reward response.” (p. 4).

In other words, when leaders make people feel seen, valued and heard—that is, a sense of belonging—it liberates individuals to be their most creative, innovative, and productive selves and less susceptible to burnout in the workplace.


Rock uses the acronym “SCARF” to outline five qualities that a leader can use to minimize the threat response and maximize the reward response:

Status: Because individuals are generally fearful of how they might compare unfavorably to others, for example in a zero-sum “winners and losers” context, supervisors can increase the perception of status simply by offering praise or encouraging employees to master new skills for which they are recognized and even compensated.

Certainty: Uncertainty and ambiguity create threat responses which, at an extreme, can lead to panic and poor decision-making. Leaders can build confidence and a sense of certainty by transparently sharing business plans, the rationale for changes, and organizational structures.

Autonomy: A lack of control or agency, for example by being micromanaged, produces a perception of reduced autonomy and thus triggering a threat response. Leaders can foster a reward response by giving their employees latitude to make choices by presenting options or empowering them to organize their work.

Relatedness: When we meet someone new our brains make quick “friend-or-foe” distinctions. When a person is perceived as different, uncomfortable feelings arise that, if left unchecked, may color the interactions going forward. Feelings of being alone or cut off triggers similar threat responses about which I’ve written in the past. Trust and empathy must be built intentionally by being inclusive and minimizing situations in which individuals or groups feel rejected or excluded. This is admittedly hard to do, but worth it.

Fairness: A perception that rewards and privileges are unfair, for example when a leader plays favorites or operates an “old boys’ network,” creates feelings of exclusion and lowers morale. On the other hand, leaders who are transparent and who keep their team members engaged and motivated increase trust and, most critically, the performance of their teams.

This work isn’t easy and certainly never ends. And leaders are not immune to the SCARF dynamic themselves. And yet, by becoming more self-aware of our SCARF—actions and decisions that support or undermine the perceived levels of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, we not only foster the conditions for us to flourish as leaders, our employees, teams, and university will thrive as well.

Warm regards,

Karl W. Reid, Ed.D.
Chief Inclusion Officer
Northeastern University