Leadership in Action – SCARF and the Growth Mindset

Leadership in Action – SCARF and the Growth Mindset


The amygdala hijack (Daniel Goleman – Emotional Intelligence) is triggered when an individual experience a significant emotional threat. When this happens, their rational thought process is compromised and the person defaults into a defensive position of fight, flight or freeze. In most situations, this is difficult to work with. In the work situation, it can mean hours of lost productivity and effectiveness.

David Rock’s SCARF model (NeuroLeadership Institute) provides a simple way of understanding the five most common amygdala hijack triggers in the workplace. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. When one of these is threatened, an amygdala hijack is likely.

Today’s blog will be the first of five that cover each of these potential triggers and will provide effective ways to Energize Action with your staff instead of scarfing them. We will start with Status.

Status is the relative respect, competence and deference given to an individual. An individual whose status is not threatened will believe their effort in the work environment is making a difference. Therefore, they are more engaged and more productive as they are choosing to use their discretionary energy in the workplace.

As leaders, we can threaten the status in many ways, from simply ignoring a staff member to outright public humiliation for an action deemed inappropriate in the moment. The most common issue where status can be threatened is when someone makes a mistake. How we handle mistakes from our staff is an important nuance of leadership. In looking at mistakes, we as leaders can either hold a fixed or growth mindset (Carol Dweck).

When we hold a fixed mindset, we see mistakes as permanent. If our staff member makes a mistake on this project, then that person is not capable of that work. We create a fear in our staff of making a mistake. This fear of mistakes holds back performance and innovation, as no one is willing to try something new for fear of making a mistake.

When we hold a growth mindset, we see mistakes as a temporary situation, and with a little work, can be overcome. As leaders, we do not need to accept mediocrity to prevent a threat to status. We just want to recognize how to give feedback in a way that maintains status and creates growth. One way to engage a growth mindset is to avoid asking why a person made the mistake (which focuses on the mistake and creates shames) and focus on getting back on track to the solution – “What do we need to do to get this project back on track?” The “we” is a key word, as that keeps their status in operating the project intact. When you use a mistake as a path for growth – from which your staff can learn and grow – you eliminate the threat and unleash their energy.

This recognition of mistakes as a path for growth is not about encouraging mistakes, but taking the fear out of trying something new. It’s Engaging Action. This reinforces that an individual’s status is not based on being perfect, but on working hard and growing in performance. This increases personal accountability and innovation.