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Improve workplace relationships using neuroscience

  • Last Updated : March 28, 2024
  • 6 Min Read

Whether you’re a software developer, a marketer, or the CEO of your own company, collaborating with people is invariably a part of your job description. Many of us have worked with people we don’t agree with or sat through meetings which could have gone better. We may have also observed minor misunderstandings between people, that could have been solved then and there, but rather linger on and have a negative impact on the relationship. Studies conducted by the Carnegie Institute of Technology found that 85% of financial success can be attributed to skills relating to emotional intelligence.

 You understand people when you understand what makes them tick. The way to a person’s heart is through their brain (though of course the stomach is a close second). People and relationships will no longer seem so complicated when we understand what motivates us. David Rock taps into neuroscience in his book Your Brain at Work to propose the SCARF model: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness. This model identifies five domains which the brain considers as important as survival needs. Let’s look at each of them one by one.

Status: a constant battle  

Many of us believe that the battle for status is an unavoidable part of life. When we subconsciously build a pecking order for everyone we know based on their status, our interactions with them may be influenced largely by that order. The way you call out your boss’s mistake may be very different from how you would treat someone who reports to you. “Status” could mean different things to different people. It could be a designation or a responsibility, or anything that gives you an edge in the social order of things.

Admitting your mistakes can lower your “threat level” in the eyes of others and paying someone a compliment elevates their status. Both can be very powerful gestures. We have to consciously disengage from the thinking that status is a zero-sum game. Healthy teams create a safe space for people to admit and learn from their mistakes.

Certainty: conviction is comforting

How are decisions made in your team? Are they made through discussion or are they done in secrecy? Are they supported with reasons or are they usually accompanied by ambiguous, empty platitudes? A lack of certainty may make you feel threatened. On the other hand, certainty lends more clarity to any situation. In the workplace, clarity can give employees a sense of purpose.

 Transparency in decision-making and clarity about what your company stands for can motivate your employees, sometimes more than monetary rewards.

Autonomy: everyone likes to be in control

Autonomy is similar to certainty—when you lack either of them it feels like you’ve lost control of the situation. Autonomy or even the perception of control is a major driver of behavior. People who quit their stable 9-5 job to start their own company and work around the clock experience more stress and a colossal amount of risk. They trade all of it in for autonomy.

 This is why micromanaging can feel suffocating and is perceived as a threat by our brains. The smallest step towards autonomy can feel like a reward. Instead of simply telling someone to do a task, asking them “Do you want to handle this meeting or do you want to try something else?” can go a long way. The person feels like they’re choosing an option instead of an assignment being handed to them.

Relatedness: where do I belong?

It’s comforting to feel like you belong within a group, like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. Exclusion and rejection are physiologically painful. This is why many of us thrive from the validation of social media.

This scientific study on social exclusion and rejection found evidence that humans experience physical pain and rejection using the same parts of our brain. This social element plays a key role in collaboration and improves teamwork. If you find that your teammate shares a hobby with you, you start seeing some part of yourself in them. This increases trust. This is why a lot of teams spend time doing activities outside work.

Fairness: not just for love and war 

A sense of fairness, or a lack thereof, generates strong negative responses in our brain. The feeling of ‘being taken advantage of’ by a taxi driver taking a longer route or by a shopkeeper at a flea market can ruin an otherwise great day, despite the relatively insignificant economic cost. A manager making a beeline to one of their favorites instead of presenting an opportunity to the entire team can sting as much as a betrayal of someone close to you.

Fairness is one of the surprising additions to the SCARF model because many of us don’t naturally consider fairness as important as food or money. Many common complaints in a workplace about pay, performance, and transparency stem from a sense of unfairness. Organization research published in the Harvard Business Review around corporate restructuring found that when decisions were made fairly, the impact of layoffs were dramatically less. Naturally, transparency and fairness are important factors for employee retention in the workplace.

So how can you be emotionally intelligent at work?  

 “Think about what it feels like when you interact with someone who makes you notice what’s good about yourself (raising your status), who is clear with his expectations of you (increasing certainty), who lets you make decisions (increasing autonomy), who connects with you on a human level (increasing relatedness), and who treats you fairly. You feel calmer, happier, more confident, more connected, and smarter. You are able to process richer streams of information about the world, which feels like the world has gotten bigger. Because this experience feels so good, you want to spend time with this person and help them any way you can.”  

 —David Rock, Your Brain at Work 

 So how can we use our newfound knowledge? We can begin by observing interactions around us.

The test of drama

Not flying off the handle when things get heated up is a sign that you can regulate your emotions. So if someone yells at you, do your best to not respond in anger. If you respond later in a passive aggressive manner, you’re still culpable. Acknowledge that you’re feeling threatened, identify the feeling, and try to understand the motive of the other person. Rational thinking in the face of drama is an acquired asset, but an invaluable one.

Know your organization

Managing expectations is possibly the one true secret to ensuring happiness in your life. Understand what you expect from your organization. Every company has a personality. Is it a “three-piece suit” company or “T-shirt and shorts” company? Do people encourage constructive criticism or do they automatically dismiss suggestions or feedback that doesn’t suit them? Despite what we might like to think, we subconsciously build a relationship with our company and with certain expectations. Positive expectation is the expectation of a reward, and unmet expectations can create a threat response.

“Healthy” competition

There is a fine line between healthy competition and actively sabotaging your coworkers. Break the culture of competition by being empathetic. Offer help without waiting to be asked. If you find someone having a bad day, ask them how they’re doing and try to support them. A high-trust environment is ultimately more conducive to productivity and creativity.   

 “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” 

—Carl Jung

The underlying quality that holds all of these practices together is self-awareness. It’s the first thing you need to work on to improve your relationships. If you can’t identify what you’re feeling, you can’t see it in others. As we become more aware of how our brain responds, it becomes easier to rewire it.

 Understanding what makes us human makes us better humans. Professional disagreements are an inescapable part of a workplace. Developing emotional intelligence helps your motivation, communication, confidence, and empathy. It improves your relationships, both in the workplace and at home. It makes you a happier person, and happy people are successful people. 

  • Aparna

    A computer engineer by education, a marketer by profession and an agile enthusiast by disposition.

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