How to Influence Others: The Neuroscience of Leadership

Motivating others is difficult work. One of the most evidential signs of this is the fact that the bulk of employees worldwide — 63% according to Gallup — are disengaged at work.

In other words, more than half the world’s workforce is lacking motivation and is ‘less likely to invest discretionary effort into organisational goals or outcomes’.

Twenty four percent are ‘actively disengaged’, indicating that they are unhappy, unproductive and liable to spread negativity within their co-workers (1).

The good old carrot and stick-methodology seems to be failing miserably and studies within the fields of social, cognitive and affective neuroscience are beginning to provide some insights into why this is happening.

This article focuses primarily on the workplace, but the principles hold true for any kind of leadership.

The ’Minimize Danger & Maximize Reward’ Principle

According to Integrative Neuroscientist, Evian Gordon, an overarching and organising principle of the brain is the ‘minimize danger and maximize reward’ principle.

This principle explains that the brain will tag a stimulus either as good or bad. If the stimulus is perceived as good, the person will approach and engage in it and if it is perceived as bad, the person will disengage and avoid it.

If a certain stimulus is associated with positive emotions and rewards, it will likely lead to the approach response; if it is associated with negative emotions or punishment, it will likely lead to an avoidance response.

David Rock, from the NeuroLeadership Institute, explains that: ”The approach-avoid response is a survival mechanism designed to help people stay alive by quickly and easily remembering what is good and bad in the environment.” (2)

The Neuroscience of High Performance

The reason why understanding the approach-avoid response is so important is that these mind states can have a dramatic effect on perception and problem-solving which, in turn, affects decision-making, stress-management, collaboration and motivation.

For example, if an employee is feeling threatened by a boss who is undermining their credibility, she/he will be less likely able to solve problems and more likely to make mistakes. Rock explains that;

“This reduced cognitive performance is driven by several factors:

Firstly, when a human being senses a threat, resources available decrease for overall executive functions in the prefrontal cortex. There is a strong negative correlation between the amount of threat activation and the resources available for the prefrontal cortex. The result is literally less oxygen and glucose available for the brain functions involved in working memory, which impacts linear and conscious processing. When feeling threatened by one’s boss, it is harder to find smart answers because of diminished cognitive resources.

Secondly, when threatened, the increased overall activation in the brain inhibits people from perceiving the more subtle signals required for solving non-linear problems involved in the insight or ‘aha!” experience.

Thirdly, there will be a tendency to generalise more, which increases the likelihood of accidental connections. For example, there is a tendency to ‘err on the side of caution’, when faced with new opportunities, as they are perceived to be more dangerous. People become more likely to react defensively to stimuli whereas small stressors become more likely to be perceived as large stressors.

When the boss appears threatening, (perhaps they just do not smile that day), suddenly a whole meeting can appear intimidating and the tendency can be to avoid taking risks.” (2)

The SCARF Model

The key to effectively leading other people then is to minimise the risk of putting people off by eliciting the threat response and instead, make sure they spend as much time as possible in the more resourceful reward response.

In order to do that, Rock has created a framework from the most important discoveries in neuroscience about the way people interact socially.

He calls this the ’SCARF model’, which is an acronym for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. In several studies these five domains have been shown to activate the same reward circuitry in the brain as physical rewards (like money) do and the same threat circuitry that physical threats (like pain) activate.

Let’s go through each of the five elements of the SCARF model to see how they impact on the brain:

This is your perception of where you are in relation to people around you. Research has shown that when you experience a drop in status, the same brain networks light up that you experienced with physical pain. An increase in status activates the same reward circuitry as when you receive a monetary reward. Studies have shown that an increase in status generates more of a response than a monetary reward. Status, therefore, is an extremely important influence on behaviour.

Giving feedback is one of the hardest things to do as a leader because it is so easy to threaten the other person’s status. People defend themselves even against kind, well-meaning and constructive feedback. They don’t like the feeling of having their status questioned so they defend themselves as if their life was depending on it.

The solution here is to be very careful with feedback and, whenever possible, allow people to give feedback to themselves. Get people to ask questions about themselves and then tell you what they think. This way their status actually goes up rather than feeling threatened. Another way to raise status is to give positive feedback, especially public acknowledgement.

Brain studies have shown that ambiguity of any kind generates a ‘danger response’. Rock refers to the brain as a “certainty creating machine” that is always trying to predict what is going to happen next.

”Even a small amount of uncertainty generates an ‘error’ response in the orbital frontal cortex (OFC). This takes attention away from one’s goals, forcing attention to the error. If someone is not telling you the whole truth, or acting incongruously, the resulting uncertainty can fire up errors in the OFC.

This is like having a flashing printer icon on your desktop when paper is jammed – the flashing cannot be ignored and, until it is resolved, it is difficult to focus on other things. Larger uncertainties, such as not knowing your boss’s expectations or not knowing whether your job is secure, can be highly debilitating.” (2)

You increase certainty by setting and meeting expectations. Let people in on your plans and strategies. Decide verbally on how long meetings will run and state clear objectives at the start of any discussion.

When people experience a stressor and feel that they have no control, their stress level becomes dramatically higher. Conversely, if you’re in a stressful situation but you do find some level of control, the level of stress comes down dramatically.

“An increase in the perception of autonomy feels rewarding. Several studies in the retirement industry find strong correlations between a sense of control and health outcomes. People leave corporate life, often for far less income, because they desire greater autonomy.

A reduction in autonomy, for example when being micro managed, can generate a strong threat response. When one senses a lack of control, the experience is of a lack of agency, or an inability to influence outcomes.” (2)

You can raise autonomy by allowing people to decide for themselves. See if you can let them set up their own desks, organise their workflow and manage their own working hours. Whenever possible, rather than telling people what to do, let them decide for themselves how they want to complete a task.

When you meet new people, your brain detects an automatic threat. This is because the brain perceives that people we’ve not yet connected with are a threat. Once we bond with someone, (which could be as simple as a conversation or a handshake), we generate what’s called an ‘oxytocin response’. This sense of bonding puts people in a category of ‘like us’ rather than ’not like us’ in the brain.

A Gallup report showed that organisations which encourage ‘water cooler’ conversations increased productivity. To increase the reward response from relatedness, the key is to find ways of increasing safe connections between people. Some examples include setting up clearly defined buddy systems, mentoring or coaching programs, or small action learning groups.

The brain science shows that a fair exchange activates the reward circuitry. An unfair exchange, on the other hand, generates a danger response. Studies by Golnaz Tabibnia and Matthew Lieberman at UCLA showed that “50 cents generated more of a reward in the brain than $10.00, when it was 50 cents out of a dollar, and the $10 was out of $50.” (2)

The solution here is to treat people fairly and to be open, honest and transparent. By increasing the communication and the involvement of others instead of keeping them out of the loop, you increase their level of perceived fairness.

Summary: How to Influence Others

The key to influencing others is to communicate with them in a way that puts them in the reward state. This will literally influence them into becoming smarter, more effective, more engaged and more productive.

You do this by keeping the SCARF model in mind:

Take a moment to think about this: how would you perform under a leader who was always trying to raise your status, who kept you in the loop on what to expect, who let you decide how to work for yourself and who encouraged safe bonding with the people around you and was open, honest and fair?

You’d do anything for this person, right?

So the next time you’re in the position of leading other people, keep a SCARF in mind. 🙂


  1. Worldwide, 13% of Employees Are Engaged at Work
  2. SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others

Suggested reading

If you found this article interesting and you’d like to learn more, check out David Rock’s excellent book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.

Thanks to…

The people at coach.me for putting together the seminar with David Rock where I learned about the SCARF model.