SCARF Up Some Change

In an HBR blog post about organizational change this morning, Walter McFarland draws in the role of the brain in defining whether change efforts will meet with success. Some of the casualties of failure to adapt to changing market conditions he mentions include Sunbeam, Polaroid, and Circuit City. While each of these formerly strong companies is no longer in business, proponents of organizational change struggle to define why some are able to reinvent themselves and others are not, other than the nefarious “human element.”

Organizational change as a field of study has long maintained that change can be defined in linear, sequential terms and processes. What we are discovering, largely through examining principles of neuroscience, is that change is neither. Instead, McFarland, the board chair elect of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), argues that modern business dynamics would suggest that it is chaotic. It is the chaotic nature of change that creates the need for greater research. We live in a time when the need to constantly change is critical to competitiveness. Neuroscience may be a key to helping us steer organizations through adaptation more effectively.

Thompson and Luthans wrote that typical reactions to change “can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organization than to try to change an existing one.” While industrial psychologists refer to this as “human resistance to change,” very few who study the phenomenon have identified how to lower the resistance consistently and pervasively. 

At the NeuroLeadership Summit, being held in New York this week, a panel discussion with senior executives and experts from The Conference Board, the Association of Change Management Professionals, Change Leaders, and Barnard College will explore the connection between neuroscience and organizational change, understanding how we can effectively deal with the human resistance to change. 

A new organizational change model is being proposed that takes into account how successful change functions in a modern organization, where work is conceptual, creative, and relational, and talent is portable. According to McFarland, activities that have contributed to the continuing poor performance of change initiatives include:

  • Perpetual underpreparation: change is always dreaded and a surprise to employees
  • A perceived need to “create a burning platform”: meant to motive employees via expressed or implied threat
  • Leading change from the top of the organization down: only a few individuals are actively involved in the change and either under communicate or miscommunicate with others

Top-down change (the traditional model) can trigger fear within employees because it “deprives them of key needs that help them better navigate the social world in the workplace. These needs include status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness” — the foundation of the SCARF model

  • Status is about relative importance to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others – of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

SCARF is a summary of important discoveries from neuroscience about the way people interact socially and is built on three central ideas:

  1. The brain treats many social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards (Lieberman, & Eisenberger, 2009). 
  2. The capacity to make decisions, solve problems and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response (Elliot, 2008). 
  3. The threat response is more intense and more common and often needs to be carefully minimized in social interactions (Baumeister et al, 2001).

Since organizational change is a significant social interaction in the marketplace, it is important to minimize perceived risk. Understanding how people tick, empowering them to vocalize their ideas, and creating better systems to engage them in the change process is best practice. More organizations need to get on board.


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