- On December 7, 2016
Dear Mr./Ms. ____, you are hereby notified that your office space will be reassigned from XXX to YYY on 1 December. Kindly have your office and personal items packed in the provided boxes and labeled clearly with your name and new location no later than Nov 30.
This is the note a colleague received last week. Move? What move? This had not been mentioned at the weekly staff meeting or in the project updates. From the looks of it, no one else in the department knew this move was coming either.
With no information available, a large part of that day and the next several days was spent speculating on why this move was happening. Were they expanding, consolidating, or what other reason necessitated disrupting the work flow of the department? People felt like pawns on a chess board.
While this move is relatively minor as changes go–changing office spaces from one part of the same floor to another–it had a huge impact on office productivity, both in the advance speculation and re-instituting effective work flow in their new spaces for weeks to come.
Logically a change like this shouldn’t be so hard–So why is so much energy spent in adjusting to it?
The brain is a very complex organism and it has evolved to do two things very well–find patterns and look for things that are out of pattern and analyze it for potential threats.
The brain is processing millions of inputs every minute and the easiest way for it to work is to find patterns. Once a pattern is found it doesn’t have to put as much effort into that piece of information, less higher level processing is required. The less the input fits in a pattern, the more anxious the brain gets about the ‘threat’ that may be lurking.
In this case, there are several obvious ‘potential threats’ the mind is spinning around as its work patterns are upended: New office space; New way to get there; New ‘neighbors’; New orientation; New locations for team members; New patterns to facilitate office collaboration.
And then there is the unstated concern: I’m being told to move. Why? Where? Will I like that space? Will I like the people I’m next to? Will I be able to get my work done? We are more aware–Are we being singled out? Are we being treated fairly?
Not only does any change stimulate the pattern/threat consideration, but while we are spending time and energy on that, there is less energy left to devote to complex problem-solving and other higher executive functions—the stuff we are really paid to do.
There are some simple fixes that could have alleviated all this anxiety.
In his article, “Managing With the Brain in Mind” , David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, credits neuroscientist Evian Gordon, with articulating ‘Minimize Danger, Maximize Reward’ as a central organizing principle of the brain. Rock then takes that a step further in the SCARF model to address five key areas—Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness–that can be managed to promote an engagement ‘approach’ response instead of a threat-based ‘avoid’ response. I find SCARF very useful as a first step to consider any time change is on the horizon.
If SCARF had been applied to this change experience, here is what might have happened instead:
- Communication would have happened early and often about why, when, and how the move would take place. This would alleviate speculation and connect everyone with the broader intention for the change.
- Instead of the seemingly arbitrary location assignments, the department could have been given autonomy to design its designated office area to best meet its collaboration and workflow needs. Those who had pivotal knowledge integration roles in the organization would be located to facilitate that flow.
- The process could have been transparent and engaging so everyone who was affected would be involved early on and their input taken into consideration.
As a leader everything you do impacts other’s perceptions of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. To keep people engaged and operating at their best, managing the SCARF can help put their brain at ease, moving them away from the energy-wasting ‘avoid’ response to a more collaborative and open ‘approach’ response.
How can you use SCARF to positively change how you interact with others?
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