We can we improve our ability to make wise choices in business and personal life by better understanding our brains and setting up conditions conducive to good decision-making. A good example is when we are confronted with a major life decision such as whether to seek (or accept) a new job. While few would argue this is ever an easy decision, it turns out the conditions under which we typically make such decisions can set us up for future disappointment. Thankfully, there is a model of social interaction that can be used to increase our chances of making a wise decision.
David Rock’s SCARF model is a framework for understanding social interactions and behaviors based in neuroscience. It describes the conditions under which we minimize threat and maximize reward, based on the current understanding of brain structures and their functions. Career decisions require precisely the kind of engaged, nuanced, creative and long-term thinking that humans can excel at only when in a mode of maximizing reward (“approach”). However, many times, the situation is marked by threat and fear, causing an “avoid” response which handicaps our ability to think like an evolved homo sapiens, reducing cognitive performance and putting our career at risk.
I think this model can be productively applied to decision making by helping us to understand why choosing can be hard and how to make it easier and potentially more successful. The model identifies five themes that can impact social interactions, motivations and, I am arguing, decisions. Here is what they are and how they can be managed to our benefit in the context of career choices:
- Status: we are very concerned with our standing relative to our peers and those against whom we measure our importance and success. If the context includes a layoff or potential lateral or perceived step backwards, then status is clearly threatened. To offset this threat, it may be helpful to volunteer with those less fortunate, affirm one’s strengths and value to others and avoid unfavorable comparisons to others such in facebook and lifestyle media. (If men’s brain structures make them especially vulnerable to status threats; they need to work extra hard to counteract them).
- Certainty: anyone who has spent time with a toddler knows how important routine, repetition and fulfilled expectations are necessary to their peace of mind. Adults are not so different. The reduction in certainty (bimonthly paycheck) and routine (going to the office, performing well known tasks with familiar people) occasioned by a career transition can be threatening. So, it may be helpful to focus on the things one can control: set a daily routine, self-impose deadlines, set a budget and maintain routines that significant others rely on.
- Autonomy: we require a sense of control over our environment, activities and outcomes. A career transition can reduce autonomy if it is (or feels) involuntary. Paradoxically, the freedom to find a new job can feel like an unwelcome obligation to get hired immediately. However, many of us all have the freedom to choose our timing and methods, recognize the many choices that are available and take responsibility for the constraints we choose to set upon our choices.
- Relatedness: we all need to feel accepted in a group of others, relishing their trust and acceptance. Of course a career transition often means that one must leave these valued colleauges and friends. We feel alone on the serenghetti among the sabertooths without our herd to protect us. We can improve relatednss by staying in touch with people, being more social including networking, joining support groups, meet ups and spending more time with family and friends.
- Fairness. Career transitions can feel unfair if they are involuntary or if the job search is not immediately or sufficiently rewarding. It’s well known that people will engage in uneconomic behaviors to address perceived unfairness. Reframing can help to control this threat-inducing feeling. We can recognize that others are in the same boat, insist on fair treatment where appropriate and remember the old saw that the best revenge is living well.
I was surprised to learn from Mr. Rock’s paper about the direct physiological impact of the threat/avoid response. Less oxygen and glucose goes to the pre-frontal cortex, overall brain activation reduces our ability to perceive subtleies and an stimulated amygdala can make us generalize incorrectly. This fast thinking can be helpful in the ancestral environment where the unexpected appearance of a predator could lead to swift death. In contrast, career transitions require our best and most evolved slow thinking. The SCARF model gives us a framework for getting the benefit of evolution and the full use of our brain to make better decisions.