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Human beings are complicated, but the premise for how our brains process our perceptions and experiences can be quite black and white. With even a cursory understanding of the brain's social structure, business leaders can improve employee satisfaction levels and performance and pick the right social networking tools to create an entrepreneurial, performance-motivated corporate culture.
Everything we perceive is broadly sorted into two categories: positive (reward) or negative (threat). These positive and negative perceptions are then filtered through the social framework of our brains, triggering either a threat or reward response.
David Rock is the founder and CEO of Results Coaching Systems (RCS) and is a respected speaker, business coach and author of many successful books and papers, including Your brain at work. When coaching and educating enterprise business leaders, Rock often references the SCARF model, which he calls a brain-based model for collaborating and influencing others
The SCARF model identifies five key, primal needs of our social-centric nature: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Our minds qualify our experiences and perceptions on these five needs and mandate a threat or reward response accordingly.
Threat and reward
How we perceive and respond to threats and rewards is central to human behavior. In a UCLA study , brain imagery revealed that the circuitry of the human brain does not distinguish primal threats to our physical survival from perceived negative social interaction. A primitive part of our brains, the limbic system, becomes actively engaged when we perceive both physical danger and social rejection. Simply put, our brains do not distinguish between physical pain and emotional insecurity.
When a threat response engages the limbic system, oxygen and glucose are diverted from the blood, which significantly hampers an individual's mental capacity -- stifling memory and information processing, and analytical and creative thinking. When this threatened individual is your employee, you can expect a sharp decrease in his or her productivity level.
A negative comment, the feeling one's work is unrecognized, a bad performance review -- all elicit a threat response or neural impulse similar to being attacked by a predator. A threat response within the social context translates primitive, fight-or-flight messages (being attacked by a predator) to social survival mode -- disengage or do only what's minimally expected of you.
Status, certainty and relatedness
How we are perceived by others, or our status, also stimulates our threat and reward response. If we feel unfairly judged by others, stress-related hormones such as cortisol are released. On the other hand, being acknowledged increases dopamine levels, a chemical associated with motivation and reward.
How familiar we are with a task or a person -- or our ability to relate tasks or people to what we know -- affects neurological responses. Having already established neural pathways for familiar (or relatable) activities or situations, our brains automatically route familiar experiences through established neural pathways, freeing up energy to do other things simultaneously. Disrupt what we know, introduce an element of uncertainty, and our threat response kicks in. In most cases, productivity drops, though uncertainty can sometimes spark motivation and innovation.
A threat response is also a common biological response to new, unfamiliar people. When meeting a new person, our minds instantly assess him. Is this person like me? Can I relate to him? What's interesting is how our brain chemistry shifts once a social connection is established with someone. Interacting with the person stimulates the release of oxytocin, a happy hormone commonly associated with love, affection, maternal instincts and generosity.
Autonomy and equality
As 3M's William McKnight aptly put it, people want to work in their own way. Being micro-managed produces a threat response. Psychological disorders are characterized as a loss of control. In a series of experiments conducted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin, researchers found that people who felt they lacked control were more likely to hallucinate, perceive conspiracies, and develop superstitions.
Employees who are afforded a reasonable degree of autonomy are generally less stressed and more content -- in part because they feel in charge of defining their work/life balance.
Lastly, people want equality and fairness. People tend to value being treated fairly and equally more highly than monetary compensation.
Augmenting these intrinsic social drivers with social networking tools will invigorate business innovation in unprecedented ways.