Five Situations Our Brains Use to Determine Trust

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I received an email from a coworker from another department.  They weren’t happy with how I was handling a situation with a customer.  I was irritated, but I politely responded back about why I was doing what I was doing. The next email from them continued to challenge my actions AND they copied my boss.  What?  I was FURIOUS!  That was uncalled for!

Isn’t it interesting how an action that challenges our judgment and expertise can trigger such a strong response?  Now, in hindsight, I understand that my professional status had been threatened and my natural survival instincts had kicked in as if I was in actual physical danger.  Watch out!

The SCARF Model

I recently presented a workshop on building trust in remote teams where we explored the neuroscience of how our brains decide if we should trust another person. Once we realize that our survival instinct sees trust as very risky business, it makes sense that we need opportunities to observe (and display) trustworthiness. We need shared experiences to decide if this other person is a threat or if they are safe. If we have enough context and experience to believe they are safe, our brain is more willing to assume the best about their intentions. Now we are more comfortable sharing our ideas, our feedback, our mistakes, and our questions.

The SCARF model, developed by David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute, highlights five situations that our brains see as very important to determine if someone is safe or a threat.

  • – Status – Does this person support and reinforce my social or professional standing?
  • – Certainty – Can I be confident about this person’s behavior and what I can expect from them?
  • A – Autonomy – Does this person make me feel like I have control, influence, and choices?
  • R – Relatedness – Do I feel a connection with this person and understand their ideas or values?
  • F – Fairness – Does this person treat me and others in a fair and respectful manner?

Consider how you support or undermine each of these factors with your team members, and see if you can identify which SCARF factors may be getting triggered when you feel a loss of trust.

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