Can we train our brains to love the don’t know?

Kim Harvey, a mindset coach and facilitator for the Leadership Trust, peers into the world of neuroscience to discover how the brain’s natural response to threat and uncertainty can be overwritten. You just need a nice scarf, apparently.

We live in a bad news world… at least it can seem that way. Our senses are bombarded by negative stories about world events, the state of the economy and the gloominess of the job market.

So what does this do to our brains?

Neuroscientists have identified that we are five times more likely to be tuned into threats than rewards — with good reason. Our ancestors had to hunt for food while remaining on the lookout for unfriendly mammoths and less than congenial sabre tooth tigers. Our brains developed to be always scanning for dangerous situations, in order to keep us safe. Unfortunately, sometimes we spot them where they may not exist.

Five ways the brain gets scared

Based on neuroscience research, David Rock, author of ‘Your Brain At Work’, designed a model that explains the five features the brain requires to be safe. It’s a useful tool for leaders looking to explore why colleagues (or they themselves) may be stressing unduly over particular issues when logic and experience should dictate a calmer response.

Kim Harvey
Kim Harvey

Identify the reason and it becomes easier for the amygdala (the brain’s emotional centre) to calm down, and for better, more grounded decision making to return.

It’s called the ‘SCARF’ model, and when any of the SCARF features are not in alignment, your brain will create an alert and you’ll feel fear, anxiety, panic etc.

The five features that SCARF wraps around are…

1. Status — Your boss tells you ‘we’re changing your job responsibilities and reporting line’. Assuming you are not happy with this change to your status, the brain will see this as a threat. Cortisol will start coursing through your body, which will cause an emotional response in you. Status is not restricted to employment. Becoming single after being in a relationship is a status change; retiring after years of being in employment is a big one too. Losing status in life causes uncertainty, and the emotional part of the brain doesn’t like change.

2. Certainty — Our brain loves certainty and predictable patterns of behaviour. Uncertainty sends it into a tailspin. Brexit, fears of job losses, organisational restructures all cause the brain to trigger a fear response.

3. Autonomy — Being clear on our job responsibilities and level of decision making is important to most of us. The brain will cause a stress response when that clarity disappears.

4. Relatedness — We all have a basic need to relate to our fellow man and fellow woman. When we work in hostile work environments prone to in-fighting and cliques, we become uncomfortable. Even when the work environments are good, it’s still possible for a leader to make a simple, unintentional mistake, such as changing the office layout so a colleague moves away from their normal team to sit on their own. That too can cause a stress response in the brain.

5. Fairness — Ever chatted to a colleague who is doing the same job as you, only to learn they’re on a higher salary? Are some members of the team receiving training and benefits that you’re not? The brain sees that as unfair, and unfairness is a threat. And by now you know what the brain does next…


So as a leader, how can you tame the brain to view the unknown as an opportunity? Can you override its biology? Can you learn that sometimes, what seems to be a threat actually isn’t and it’s possible to feel comfortable with uncertainty?

Well the good news is the brain can be rewired. Neuroscientists term it neuroplasticity — learning new behaviours and habits that we can install to override existing wiring.

So next time you are feeling stressed or anxious, take a look at the SCARF model and ask yourself ‘which SCARF element is not in alignment’?

The fight between wanting to risk it, and wanting to run away

When you have worked out which element it is (it can be more than one) recognise that this is the brain’s way of keeping you safe. It’s biological; you can’t change it. But you can say to yourself ‘now I know which element is not aligned, what am I going to do about it?’ and set yourself an action plan.

There is a constant fight going on in our heads between the emotional brain and the rational brain. The rational brain wants to try new things, but the emotional brain wants predictable patterns of behaviour it can rely on to keep us safe.

Uncertainty gives us an opportunity to try something new and different. Taking a risk is good as it drives us forward, fostering creativity and the entrepreneurial mindset. But having a brain that reminds us of potential dangers in order to protect us (SCARF) is no bad thing either.

Weighing risk versus potential is a fundamental way the brain keeps us safe. Businesses work like this every day.

Live your life with the view that ‘there is no such thing as failure, only ever learning’. As a leader, be comfortable with uncertainty by changing what you do. Don’t fear the fear. Question it, then put steps in place to move forward productively.


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