Don't Forget the SCARF
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Don’t Forget the SCARF

Requesting feedback is possibly the single most impactful action a leader can take to gain insight that will improve personal and team performance. But sometimes, asking someone to give us feedback initiates that awkward moment where our well-meaning question is met with blank stares and silence. Has this ever happened to you?  

We see and hear about these uncomfortable interactions all the time (in fact, we even experience them). Often this behavior is showing up because an essential element is being evaluated underneath the surface: psychological safety.  

Where is fear hiding in the workplace? 

We know this may be hard or even uncomfortable for you to consider, but there is a good chance that fear is hiding in your workplace – and that fear may show up in ways that may surprise you.  

Here are some statements that we’ve heard from individuals over the years that boil down to psychological safety: 

  • They’re reluctant to speak up and share uncomfortable truths because it will come back to “bite” them later. 
  • They feel insecure and don’t want to make things awkward by providing their thoughts (yes, even that person who seems self-assured).  
  • They’re concerned that if they say something a leader doesn’t like, it will negatively affect their future (e.g., interpersonal interactions, professional opportunities, etc.). 
  • They worry about not being liked or even ostracized by managers and teammates. 

We have found that helping leaders gain awareness of the social and psychological dynamics at play within a team can help them cultivate healthier team dynamics.  

An example of social factors at play is revealed in the work of Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute. Rock has found that five social factors impact psychological safety. These five factors make up the acronym SCARF

  • Status – Am I respected and seen as important?  
  • Certainty – Can I anticipate what is going to happen next? 
  • Autonomy – What am I able to control?” 
  • Relatedness – How well do I belong? Am I supported by those around me? 
  • Fairness – Am I being treated fairly?

When people feel comfortable in these five areas, psychological safety tends to be high, and they’re more likely to take risks. On the other hand, when their brain feels threatened, it triggers what neuroscientists call an amygdala hijacking. Also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response, this is where our heart beats faster, our palms start to sweat, and we feel the need to escape. In this state, our logical brain takes a break, and our emotional brain takes the wheel. Our ability to think, create, and collaborate significantly goes down in this state, and that’s not good.

From threat to curiosity 

This might be good information to know, but what do we do with it? How do we practically apply it? Here are three steps you can take this week to turn the insights from this article into greater psychological safety in your workplace. 

  1. Raise your personal awareness Like all things in leadership, personal awareness is key. You could gain insight into yourself by taking the free SCARF assessment available from the NeuroLeadership Institute. This resource will show you which of the five SCARF triggers may be impacting your work and your reactions.  You can even encourage your team to take this so everyone can better understand the group’s drivers and inhibitors. 
  2. Look for patterns This week, step back and observe the dynamics in team meetings and in your one-on-one conversations. Are there points someone seems uncomfortable or hesitant to share information with you or others? At an appropriate time, take a few minutes and consider which of the underlying social “alerts” might be getting triggered.  
  3. Commit to curiosity for 1 week Rather than assuming you know what’s going on with others, seek to understand. Ask questions with curiosity and lead with kindness. Be slow to rebut someone when they offer their perspective.  

Bonus Step – Speak to the Awkward Silence 

Next time you experience that awkward silence, take a breath, and embrace the silence. Then say: “I’m noticing it got very quiet just now, and I can imagine this might be an uncomfortable topic. I really want to hear your viewpoints, and it would be helpful if we could have an open conversation about this right now.” 

Final Thought: Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence. They can also create a Cassandra culture—an environment in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded (Amy Edmondson).

Ethos Leadership Group, LLC

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Carol joined Ethos in 2020 after working in revenue cycle management and operations for non-profit and for-profit organizations. A natural helper, Carol takes pride in completing operational tasks that allow her teammates to focus on client-facing work. Carol particularly enjoys preparing Ethos’ daily tweets and bi-weekly leadership content for publication.

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