The Neuroscience of Influence

Woman laughing with others

The Neuroscience of Influence (2 of 3)

by Dean Newlund, CEO

INFLUENCE: The actions taken to change the behavior of another person. Last week, I wrote that humankind’s story can be summarized as “the struggle to influence.” As long as humans have wanted to connect with and get something from other people, we’ve devised ways to influence: Literature, art, music, politics, economics, religion, education, philosophy are all about the struggle to influence.

The story to influence is an evolving one. The methods to influence are developed based on the context of the day. How we influenced soldiers in Medieval England is far different than how we influenced rural preschoolers in 2020.

For most of the 20th century, companies evolved their organizational change management practices by adapting to new influence-methods. The most popular was the “Carrot and stick” form of reward and punishment. When computers entered the workplace in the 1960s, our influencing techniques changed because the context changed: We needed people to think, not just do. And you can’t force a person to think unless they want to. Hence, Daniel Pink’s “free agent nation” was born. Safe and inviting workplaces engaged people in purpose-centered work. Influence in an age of the “internet of things” was achieved by engagement.

Today, we’re in a new era—a new context. The sustained and pervasive chaos, uncertainty, and stress of the COVID pandemic are not fully understood. We don’t know what we don’t know. The erratic behavior from soldiers returning home from Vietnam confused families and mental health professionals. Later, we called it PTSD. One day, we will have a name for the COVID related stress. Whatever we end up calling it, the way we influence needs to change.

I’ve developed a three-word model that addresses modern-day challenges and opportunities: Contract. Benefit. Agility. In part one of this series, I shared ways to re-contract interpersonal and team relationships by working backward from purpose and filling in structure and agreements.

In this article, I will dive into the neuroscience of influence. First I must give credit to Chris Larson,our VP of Learning and Development, for exposing me to the neuroscience of influence and the research from David Rock from his 2008 article in the NeuroLeadership Journal.

The subconscious parts of our brain drive most of our social behavior. While the conscious-brain is aware of dozens of ways we attempt to influence, the unconscious-brain only cares about two things: Benefits and threats. Think of this part of the brain as a director of traffic. It asks, “is this stimulus a threat or a benefit?” Depending on how it answers that question, it sends instructions to other parts of the brain that starts a chain reaction of chemicals being generated, followed by emotion and then an outward behavior.

For example, your boss unexpectedly puts a meeting on your calendar for you and her. She doesn’t explain why. The traffic controller in your unconscious-brain takes this information, asks the question: “Is this a benefit or a threat?”, determines it is a threat, fires up some adrenaline, which sets off the emotion of anxiety, resulting in the outward behavior of sleepless nights.

Rock says the traffic controller is five times more likely to interpret information as a threat than a benefit; no wonder we enjoy negative news, violent entertainment, and gossiping over another’s misfortune.

When the brain perceives a benefit, we move toward that person and engage. When the brain perceives a threat, we create distance and avoid it. The significance of this becomes more apparent when we discover the dramatic effect these states can have on perception, problem-solving, decision-making, stress management, collaboration, and motivation.

Rock explains how the traffic controller categorizes social information into five groupings of Threat or Benefit:

Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness, or SCARF for short.

Status is about relative power and success measures to another person or within a group – the ‘pecking order’, prestige or rank. It is the most significant determinant of human longevity and health, even more so than education and income (Sapolski, 2002).

Status being threatened:

  • Can occur as easily as giving advice or suggesting someone is slightly ineffective at a task,
  • Triggered by an annual review,
  • Being left out of an activity or group lights up the same brain regions as physical pain.

Status as a benefit:

  • Promotions, Recognition and approval, especially publicly,
  • Opportunities for learning and development.

Certainty. The brain likes to predict the future and to know what is occurring from moment to moment. It craves certainty, so prediction is possible. As Debra Sunderland said during my interview with her on The Business of Intuition podcast, “The subconscious brain doesn’t care about your vision or goals. All it cares about is safety”. And, according to David Rock, “Without the ability to predict, the brain must use dramatically more resources, involving the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex, to process moment-to-moment experiences.

Certainty being threatened:

  • When someone is not telling you the whole story,
  • When someone is acting incongruously,
  • Not knowing your boss’s expectations,
  • Not knowing if your job is secure.

Certainty as a benefit:

  • Building and communicating business plans, strategies and mapping out an organizational structure,
  • Breaking down a complex project into small steps,
  • Setting clear expectations of the desired outcome,
  • Creating ground rules, as in how long a meeting will run and what should be included in an agenda,Informing people when the information will be provided.

Autonomy is the perception that one has choices. It is exerting control over one’s environment. “Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be highly destructive, whereas the same stress interpreted as escapable is significantly less destructive,” according to Rock. Also, a sense of control can improve the health of those in retirement communities.

Autonomy being threatened:

  • Micromanaged by a boss,
  • Having work redone or corrected,
  • Over-reliance on KPI (key performance indicators and SOPs (Stand Operating Procedures).

Autonomy as a benefit:

  • Giving people the option to choose, for example, whether to work from home or not,
  • Pushing authority down to the level where it matters most,
  • Employee designed learning curriculums,
  • Allowing people to set their hours and design their workspaces.

Relatedness involves being “in” or “out” of a social group. The decision that a person is a friend or a foe happens very quickly, according to a 2008 study by Carter & Pelphrey. The absence of social inclusion causes loneliness. The concept of relatedness is closely related to trust.

Relatedness being threatened:

  • Social distancing caused by the COVID pandemic has triggered many of us to feel separate from our social groups and families,
  • For some, meeting new people,
  • Not being included in the meeting, team, critical decision, or social gathering.

Relatedness as a benefit:

  • Establish safe ways for people to connect through good emotional intelligence and social agility,
  • Set up buddy systems or mentoring programs,
  • Schedule team-building events,Limit meetings to under seven or allow for breakout sessions.

Fairness. Studies show that fair exchanges are intrinsically rewarding. Unfair interactions evoke strong emotions such as disgust or anger. Our recent election and all the events that led up to it are dramatic examples of people perceiving others’ actions as unfair. People who perceive others as unfair, according to Rock, “…don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished.” Think revenge movies.

Fairness being threatened:

  • The rules for one group don’t appear to be followed by another,
  • Leaders don’t walk the talk of the company values,
  • Poor performers aren’t held accountable.

Fairness as a benefit

  • Increasing transparency,
  • Increasing the level of communication and involvement in business issues,
  • Holding everyone accountable to the same set of standards,
  • Setting clear ground rules and following them.

The SCARF model can be effective leadership and team development tool by increasing awareness about what derails communication and establishing connections between people and teams. However, leaders will often provide too much direction and not enough feedback, thereby affecting people’s status. They’ll be too busy and fail to set clear expectations, impacting certainty. They over-direct and over-control, impacting autonomy. They possess a mindset that leaders need to be professional and keep their distance, impacting relatedness. And they undervalue the need for complete transparency, thus affecting fairness.

Today we are in a new area of VUCA, volatility, uncertainty, chaos, and ambiguity. Companies need culture resource management tools. We need a model to influence that meets today’s challenges. SCARF is a tool that addresses the need for people to see things as benefits and not as threats. Next week, I’ll share the final part of my three-part model, agility.

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“In the absence of safe social interactions the body creates a threat response.”