Sex. Food. Water. Relationships. Shelter.

What do these things all have in common? 

They are arguably (and in no particular order, depending on who you ask or what studies you’ve read), what humans all aim to maximize because it arouses positive emotions and is rewarding. To have it taken away is a threat to our well-being, our happiness and our very survival. The “minimize danger, maximize reward” is a primal response that is part of our survival instinct and enables us to essentially stay alive by quickly recalling threats within our surroundings. On a social level however, our brains actually utilize similar circuitry when it comes to dealing with the real world (Rock, 2001). Furthermore, studies have found that when we feel rejected or unfairly treated, we experience “social pain” – which activates the same brain regions as when we experience real, physical pain!

Why does any of this matter when it comes to managing and working with others, specifically in the face of organizational change? It turns out that social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the need for food and water, which is summarized within a framework developed by David Rock known as the SCARF model. SCARF represents the five areas of the “human social experience” (Rock, 2001):

·       Status – relative importance to others

·       Certainty – ability to predict the future

·       Autonomy – sense of control over events

·       Relatedness – sense of safety with others (friend vs. foe)

·       Fairness – perception of fair exchanges between people

Many organizations are even beginning to communicate this model when it comes to managing organizational change. North Highland, a global consultancy, uses SCARF as common vocabulary to speak with clients about real, human motivations in an objective and structured format (Barrett, 2015).

Status Matters

Focusing exclusively on the status domain, it is worth nothing that when we feel better than the next person, our dopamine levels increase as well. In other words, it is rewarding when our sense of status goes up. We care about how we stack up against others, and we will naturally protect our “pecking order” so as to avoid being threatened or feeling social pain. 

Status also pertains to what Jonah Berger describes in Contagious as “social currency.” As humans, we care about how we are perceived by others. He discusses the popularity of airline frequent flyer programs and social networking tools like Foursquare as effective status systems because they allow people to achieve various status levels and to publicly show off their achievements because, let’s face it – achieving a certain status (even in the cyber world) makes us look good. Similarly, I’ve vacationed at resorts where select guests were armed (literally) with a special wristband that provided special access to a VIP area or all-you-can-drink privileges from the poolside bar. These rubber badges distinguished those exclusive guests from the rest of us, which really should not have mattered. But it did, if even on a small scale – because people care about how they look to others. They want to be “in the know,” and they want to seem like insiders (Berger, 2013).

Consider someone whose day-to-day responsibilities on a project or in an organization may be impacted by some sort of change or disruption – a new software technology implementation for example, or the introduction of a new business leader. A natural reaction we can expect may be a defense mechanism in the form of unwillingness to adopt to changes or worse, being disruptive and preventing things from moving forward so as to protect role and rank. It can also be unexpectedly easy to threaten an individual’s status without ever really meaning to – such as simply providing input or recommendations as part of casual, everyday conversation. It is critical to keep this top of mind when bringing someone along the change journey; oftentimes we hone in on the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) but just as important is to truly understand the individual’s current situation (personally and professionally) and motivations, then assess how to maximize reward and minimize the “danger” of the impending change for this particular individual.

That said, how do we increase the feeling of reward one gets by improving a sense of status? The thing about change is, the impacts of it are unknown – which result in perceived threat. 

I Heard it Through the Grapevine (or not)

Keeping those impacted by the change “in the know” is key – start by identifying your key stakeholders and assessing who at minimum, needs to be informed. Maintaining ongoing communications is critical – even if the message is “we don’t know what exactly is going to happen, but we will find out more and let you know next month.” One of the most common mistakes is to keep someone out (whether intentionally or unintentionally), as this will certainly lead to a perceived threat to current status and feeling of unfair treatment – both “social injuries” which affect us on the neural level in much the same way physical injury does.

Two, Four, Six, Eight…Who do we appreciate?

Taking it one step further, identify those who can help “cheerlead” the change by letting them be one of the first to know and the ones to help decide how to roll out the changes while maintaining or improving others’ sense of status. By assigning these select few such an exclusive role, they will be empowered as “insiders” who have a voice – thereby helping to maximize their own sense of status and ultimately, positive and rewarding emotions. Doing so also reduces the feeling of social exclusion; in other words, satisfying an individual’s needs for social acceptance, which results in a response within the brain in much the same way it responds to tangible rewards (Lieberman & Eisenberger, 2008).

(Don’t) Show Me the Money

Identifying achievements (no matter how big or small) and providing continuous, positive and real-time feedback also stimulates the reward circuitry. Even better, work with the person to set both individual and team-based goals; a sense of accomplishment and status can be achieved when one’s own goals are achieved (or the goals of a team or cohort that person is a member of). Finally, there is no better way to increase a sense of status as when that recognition is “published” for all to see (think about when this has happened for you!) In fact, a 2013 employee engagement survey found that 83% of respondents found recognition for contributions to be more fulfilling than any rewards or gifts, and 88% found praise from managers very or extremely motivating (Lipman 2013). Praise and recognition therefore contribute just as much, if not more, to our perceived status (and feeling of reward) than does money.

We are social beings who naturally and unequivocally do what it takes to avoid pain and experience reward. It’s quite simple and basic, really. We do this not only because it feels good, but because it is part of our basic, natural instinct. The significance of social status, survival, pains, and rewards is important to understand when it comes to helping and supporting others – whether it is as a business leader, change manager, work colleague, or friend. Doing so does, after all increase our own social pleasures.



Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1-5.

Barrett, A. (2015). Using Neuroscience to Manage the Human Side of Transformations. North Highland Worldwide Consulting Web. 2015.

Berger, J. (2013). Contagious.

Lieberman, M., Eisenberger, N. (2008). The pains and pleasures of social life: a social cognitive neuroscience approach. NeuroLeadership Journal, 5-7.

Lipman, V. (2013). New Employee Study Shows Recognition Matters More Than Money. Psychology Today Web, 13 June 2013.


Image Source: Medical Daily