Do you sit in a cubicle at work? Do you have an office? If you are a teacher do you have a “homeroom” or a desk or are you forced to live life on a cart towing your materials from one class to the next? Does your boss say “hi” or simply glance down and walk by in the mornings?
Is your opinion sought out? Do you get to speak at meetings? Put things on the agenda? Are you even invited to meetings? Do you have a parking spot? A phone? A computer that actually is current and runs things the way you want? When “everyone” goes for a beverage on Friday afternoon, do you get the invite? Who is “in” and conversely what does the “in” group tell the rest of us about our place in the organization?
All of the above comes to mind when I think about how you determine your status at work. How do you view yourself and how are your viewed by others? What is your place in the organization and which parts of culture tell you, with some certainty, how you fit in the grand scheme of things? Most importantly for this article is how do you receive feedback about your work and how does that translate into how you view your status?
Recently, I read an article that I have found fascinating when considering the importance and impact of one’s status at
work. Research on the brain tells us that each and every one of us likes to know our place in the organization. We look for certainty about our status and we construct that status based on a complex web of interactions and behaviours that help shape who we are on the job. While there are structural and organizational clues that tell you about your status, of most interest to me is how do you give and receive feedback and what does that feedback tell people about their status? Finally, as a consequence of such feedback, how do people respond?
David Rock’s research on feedback and the brain highlights the importance of understanding how feedback is received. He has an instructive model called SCARF. I believe David’s model has enormous implications for our work and wanted to devote a couple of blogs to it. SCARF says that in the workplace people look for:
- Status – your relative importance to others
- Certainty – being able to predict your future
- Autonomy – a sense of control over events
- Relatedness – seeing others as friends rather than foes
- Fairness – a perception that you are treated as an equal with others
The thing that is most impactful for me as I read about SCARF is the assertion that the brain receives information about each of the above and triggers either a threat or a reward response. Why is this huge? Because in my work, I give people feedback all the time. This feedback is sometimes in words and advice, however it is also by the little things like inviting people to share their opinion, or invite them to speak at a meeting. If I give people information either verbal or otherwise that makes them question their status in the organization, the response in the brain is similar to that of an overt threat. The impact on individuals with respect to the other areas is the same. If you are taking away someone’s autonomy, the brain sees this in the same way as a physical threat.
The implications for coaching and mentorship are obvious. Not everyone receives feedback well and some of their response may be beyond their control. It might not be that someone simply seems upset by suggestions for changes, the neurological response may be the result of what is perceived to be a threat to their very status in the organization. Even more problematic, this is an unconscious response.
As we prepare to give feedback, especially if you are in a position of having to evaluate someone or to give them guidance when things aren’t going well, remember that you first need to pay careful attention to not the message, but the delivery. The information you are delivering may not just be guidance and advice, it may represent a direct threat to how they view their status in the organization.
I have always felt that giving feedback to people was as much an art as it was a science. We need to be clear, we need to be honest, we need to be practical, and most importantly we need to be supportive. But however careful you may be, understanding the actual neurological response is another critical consideration. One suggestion for how to reduce the status threat and response is not just to be aware, but to ensure that people have the ability to self-reflect and consider their own performance. Including people’s views about their own performance as part of the process can be one way to reduce the threat response.
Next blog…we’ll focus on certainty and the second part of the SCARF model. Humans are pattern seeking machines and our ability to predict their future helps us feel comfortable in the workplace. For anyone, reading David Rock’s research is a helpful insight into how we interact in the workplace.