How Your Scarf Makes You a Better Leader
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How Your Scarf Makes You a Better Leader

How Your Scarf Makes You a Better Leader


You may be wondering if Traveling Light is suddenly becoming a fashion magazine, but in fact SCARF is an acronym I learned from Dov Pollack, Senior Learning Consultant at Hills Physicians Medical Group. It’s based primarily on brain research summarized in a paper by David Rock.

It’s pretty rare for Traveling Light to cover ramblings other than my own, but I liked this acronym so much that I’m sharing it with you today, along with a highly abbreviated summary of the implications of each letter for you.

For many years I’ve been pressing clients to give much more positive feedback, refrain from solving problems just because you can do it faster than your people, and be more inclusive than you think you need to be. However, I’ve had little more than my own gut instincts and a few examples and small studies to support my arguments.

Now I have brain research indicating that there is a direct benefit to all of these leadership choices. Too bad this wasn’t around when I was just getting started!

Many leaders unwittingly engage in behaviors which actually lower cognition. In common terms, this means you may accidentally be making your people dumber than their IQ would indicate. Humans have five needs which are directly related to cognitive ability. By consciously choosing leadership behaviors that meet these five needs, you can make your people smarter.

Status: Being confused about your status with the boss or within the organization lowers cognition. Tell your people “good job” when they do a good job. Don’t leave them wondering if you loved it or hated it. Make conditions for promotions and bonuses clear. Don’t make them guess or assume their status in the organization. This also supports the second cognitive need, so let’s move on to that one.

Certainty: Uncertainty disengages people from the present. We are hard-wired to experience uncertainty as a threat. People who are worried about a pending lay-off, for example, are not chemically capable of doing their best work. We all have to live with levels of uncertainty, but often I see leaders skip or skimp on communication that could reduce the level of uncertainty that comes from just not knowing.

Autonomy: When you give people the answer instead of guiding them through solving the problem themselves, you literally degrade their ability to think. Likewise, if you go to your own boss for the answer instead coming up with a solution to propose to him or her, you are decreasing your own cognitive skills. The hard work of thinking through the challenge, creating possible solutions, evaluating them, and creating or choosing a course of action builds mental muscle. He or she who does the mental work reaps the mental reward. If someone comes to you to solve the problem, guide them through solving it themselves, mentor them, coach them – but don’t solve it for them unless you absolutely must.

Relatedness: To the limbic brain, life is so simple: insider = reward, outsider = threat. Humans are pack animals. We all need to feel that we are part of something. Leaders must create teams that are cohesive, not just efficient. If you do not have very much talent for this, find people on your team who are good at reading tension, fears, and feelings, and ask them to tell you what they observe.

Fairness: Trust breaks down on a team when someone’s sense of fairness has been violated. A symptom of this is when you find yourself mediating fights over dumb things when you know your people can do better and should be focused on what’s central to the business and their roles. Don’t try to referee silly arguments between your direct reports. Dig deeper to learn if trust has been violated.

Here’s your Traveling Light challenge, should you choose to accept it: Pick out one of these techniques and try it for a week. If you notice improvements, however small, add another one next week. Ironically, when you start going against everything you’ve been taught over the years (for example, long-unquestioned assumptions like “be tough and unrelenting,” “make everyone mega-efficient,” and “discourage people from forming too many personal bonds”), your leadership will step up everyone’s pace.