Threat is more powerful than reward because our brains are designed to keep us safe. Studies show the avoid (threat) response generates more arousal, more quickly and lasts longer than the approach (reward) response. The limbic system within the brain controls our emotions. It can process information within a fifth of a second before it reaches conscious awareness. It remembers whether something should be avoided or approached. We may consider this intuition. It is reflex designed for survival.

Physical and social pains produce similar responses. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) shows the same areas of the brain are stimulated whether the pain is physical or social. The brain equates social needs with survival. During that fight or flight response the limbic system is using oxygen and glucose inhibiting the thinking part of the brain. Our limbic system hijacks us when we most need our mental capacities. We have the tendency to generalize, make incorrect connections and shrink our aptitude for insight.

Understanding how the brain works can help us manage ourselves and others. Mindful attention is an awareness of our own mental processes. The five domains of the human social experience help us frame social threats and rewards. The SCARF model (David Rock, 2008) is made up of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Status is about relative importance. When we feel important, valued, better than someone else our sense of status goes up. When we win a game or achieve a new personal best we are intrinsically rewarded. Research of humans and monkeys has shown status is the most significant determinant of health and longevity. Status can be threatened by making a suggestion or giving feedback. No one wants to be perceived as less than another.

Certainty is about predicting the future. The brain is a pattern recognizing machine. The brain doesn’t need to work when things are the same. When something is unexpected or different, the brain perceives an error and expends its energy; the greater the uncertainty, the more expense. Change management is all about increasing a sense of certainty even when little exists.

Autonomy provides a sense of control, having choices. When we feel a lack of control, we also feel a lack of certainty. This creates stress. Conversely when we experience stress, the more control we have over the situation the less destructive the stress is. A study of nursing homes showed residents who were given more control over insignificant decisions were healthier and lived longer.

Relatedness is a sense of safety with others and linked with trust. People like to form tribes and experience a sense of belonging. The brain makes quick friend or foe decisions. Meeting someone unknown often triggers a threat response. Shaking hands and discussing something in common may release oxytocin, a hormone associated with affiliative behavior.

Fairness is the perception of fair exchanges between people. Unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response sometimes activating intense emotions like disgust. When people perceive others as unfair, there is little if any empathy for their pain. Perceived unfairness can be reduced by transparency.

People who pay attention to these mental processes can better employ their own and others’ talents.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management provides management training and refines human resource systems to make the world kinder, one workplace at a time. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or nora@manage

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