Neuro-leadership is about engagement

Jonathan Mills
4 min readFeb 5, 2023

“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient” (Charles M Blow)

Don’t we all love ‘position’ — a title, a promotion, status? Yes, even neuroscience affirms that status is a need that we all have, not in the sense of greedy ambition, but rather knowing and feeling secure with our place in the world. Dr David Rock’s SCARF model suggests that the human being’s brain responds biologically in a positive way towards reward and negatively to threats, driving defence mechanisms to counter any disruption to, or perceived attacks on, a person’s Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness (SCARF). SCARF is defined as follows:

  • Status — your perceived importance in relation to others. Is the job you are doing creating value? Have you found your niche where you feel you can best contribute? Do others appreciate your involvement, participation, and contribution?
  • Certainty — your ability to predict, or at least have an idea of, the near future. Are you comfortable with your role at work and do you know what is expected of you? Are you working towards the perceived “big picture” or vision of the company and do you have personal goals that you would like to achieve — something to work towards?
  • Autonomy — the perception of exerting some control over your environment. Are you able to make decisions and act on them? Do you feel some degree of empowerment? Are you able to take responsibility for your decisions and own your actions?
  • Relatedness — feeling safe in relation to others; feeling ‘in’ and not ‘out’. Do you confidently build relationships of trust where you can speak freely without fear of retribution? Do you act with integrity in your relationships so that you can relax in the presence of others?
  • Fairness — the perception of being treated equitably or justly. Do you treat others without prejudice or bias and expect reciprocal treatment from them? Do you refrain from judging others, treating them with compassion and standing up for what is just?

At work, or in any other organisation, when you feel left out, overlooked, or neglected, your brain perceives this as a threat and immediately you become distracted and anxious. You think less clearly, view work and colleagues as hostile and these result in reduced memory, poorer performance and a weakened immune system. When you feel accepted, included, and valued, however, you experience your role as rewarding, which translates into feeling positive or more optimistic, becoming more focused and engaged, innovative and creative, more able to learn, more willing to collaborate and get involved — all of which produce better results and increased resilience.

This is important information for the leader (manager/supervisor) in communication that takes place with employees. Instead of focusing on self (self-importance) and playing positioning games (climbing the corporate ladder), the leader should be asking the following questions in relation to expressing empathy and achieving understanding with employees:

  • Status — how can I show respect and appreciation? Am I recognising the achievements of team members and praising discretionary effort?
  • Certainty — am I giving employees adequate/sufficient information so that they can carefully plan their week/month? Do I share enough of the “big picture” with staff so that they have a clear vision of the company’s future? Am I demonstrating excitement about the future?
  • Autonomy — am I micro-managing my people or do I give them plenty of opportunities to make choices about how they work? Do I include employees in decision-making that affects them?
  • Relatedness — how can I create safety so that all have the freedom to offer their ideas or voice their concerns? How can I be more inclusive, soliciting meaningful participation from all employees?
  • Fairness — do my words and actions speak to fairness? Do I treat everyone with the same degree of firmness, but with compassion? Do I find myself bending the rules or making allowances for the behaviour of some employees and not others?

Neuro-leadership is about engagement. Leaders need to communicate with understanding and empathy to all employees to achieve collaboration, participation and meaningful contribution from team members. Leadership is not about personal status and self-importance, but rather enhancing the growth of others.

Free To Grow offers the programme, Engaging Leadership, to provide leaders with the skills and will to engage meaningfully with employees. For more information, contact me on jonathan@ftgsa.co.za

Originally published at https://www.stretchforgrowth.com on February 5, 2023.

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Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.