Why You Should Use Neuroscience to Master Change Management

Managing a project for the first time can be overwhelming. First, there's the technical side to learn: project management methods and tools, organizational techniques, etc. Then, there's the really important part: the people side of things. Most project managers and team leaders learn the hard way that appropriately managing people and change is the key to a smooth and sustainable execution.

Here's the good news: just as you can learn the basic techniques to survive any project, you can also learn a few fundamentals about human nature that will help you effectively manage your colleagues and stakeholders without being the bad guy. Heck, they might even like your style!

SCARF: Your New Management Framework

With so many books and articles on people and change management, it's easy to get confused. Especially when encountering contradictory points of view. I propose a management technique based on an understanding of how our brains are wired to react to change. The framework I suggest is David Rock's SCARF: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

These factors activate our brains either positively or negatively, depending on whether we feel threatened or secure. By considering these 5 domains, you can help your team be more positive, focused, productive, and collaborative.

Here's what you need to know about SCARF and how to apply it to your team:

1. Status
Status reflects how much a person feels respected and valued.

How to boost: 

  • Make them shine! Provide team members with public praise, especially in front of their managers. And make sure you don't give the impression of trying to take credit for others' work.
  • Ask for opinions or help.
  • Involve them in a significant project, and/or remind them how their current project helps the company achieve a strategic objective.
  • Applaud them for showing improvement, or for working to develop their skills.

2. Certainty
Did you know the brain has 5 times more neural networks to detect threats than rewards or opportunities? The brain likes certainty, and without it, people speculate and become anxious.

How to boost:

  • Provide open and consistent information about what will be changed, why, and what the effects will be.
  • When there is no information to be shared, or if decisions are still in the works, communicate that fact as well.

3. Autonomy
Autonomy is our need to have control over our own lives. (It's one reason we don't like being micromanaged.)

How to boost:

  • Ask, don't tell. Instead of just assigning someone a task and imposing a due date, make a request and allow the assignee to commit to an action and due date that satisfies both parties.
  • Allow negotiation. Give the performer the opportunity to negotiate the delivery date.

4. Relatedness
This is about our social nature and our sense of belonging to a group. It enhances trust, engagement, and performance.

How to boost:

  • Give team members time with leaders.
  • Have team meetings to share best practices and lessons.
  • Host informal social gatherings and team-building activities.

5. Fairness
Our brains are great at detecting when a change will impact us unfairly. Just think of how quickly kids detect unfairness, and how they immediately resist it. In times of change, our brains need to know that an outcome (and the process for reaching that outcome) will be fair.

How to boost:

  • Focus on transparency with the process and the results.
  • Encourage people to come forward if they perceive unfairness.

How to Get Started with SCARF

Tip when implementing SCARF: It's extremely important to consider these domains for your project team members, but don't forget the other stakeholders! Your project can screech to a halt because of imposed barriers by coworkers, top management, shareholders, trade unions, suppliers, and even your customers. Ask yourself these questions: Who is being impacted by this project? Who could perceive a threat to any of their SCARF domains?

To start practicing, observe your colleagues, family, and friends. When someone gets upset or annoyed, try to identify the cause. Which of their SCARF domains have been triggered?

Project Managers and Change Management

Project managers grapple with change management every day. How have you helped your team through a big transition? Share your tips and help out your fellow project managers!

Sources: Neuroscience: Helping Employees Through Change

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