I judge you on your behaviour, however, I judge myself on my intent’

When we look to others behaviour in the workplace, we tend to only look at the outward results of their actions in making judgements on the intent of those actions.  A careless remark by a manager, a ‘thoughtless’ lack of thanks for a great job done, an unreasonable request or, worse, an over the top reaction to a mistake can, and rightly does, upset our sense of social justice in the workplace and our sense of what may be right and wrong in terms of how to behave.

Sometimes we may react irrationally back at the person, however we won’t be as critical of our own reaction because we have the benefit of knowing our INTENT as well.  At other times we retreat, we may sulk, we may engage in avoidance behaviour or we may just stonewall.   A lot of the time, our reactions actually make it worse for us, while the irrational person seemingly wanders off and feels vindicated now that they’ve ‘put us in our place’.  Major frustration.

Therefore, this post is very much focused around our own reaction to irrational behaviour and helping us to move on from it more quickly and effectively.  I’m not excusing ‘bad’ behaviour at all; however, I do want to build self-regulation strategies so that I’m better at dealing with the ‘bad’ behaviour.

Getting better at dealing with ‘bad’ behaviour

We can maximise our impact on those we perceive we have trouble influencing, as well as those we feel are irrational, by first examining our own reaction to the aforementioned behaviour.  The idea behind this is that if you build your own self-regulation strategies and self-management tools, you can enhance your own effectiveness and also reduce the incidents of irrational behaviour in others by influencing and managing their behaviour.

The SCARF model, by David Rock, a leading neuroscience practitioner, builds on the understanding that the brain is focused on increasing or sustaining reward and avoiding negative experiences. From this focus on reward and avoidance of negativity develops various drives and behaviours in the workplace.

Let’s look at each of these five areas of social response in a little detail:

1. Status

Our sense of worth.  Our sense of where we fit into the hierarchy at work both socially and organisationally. When we are given praise or criticism this will influence our status. Feelings of threat are processed uniquely by each of us. For example, being given a small ‘tip’, can already be seen as a threat and stimulate a defensive reaction.  Positivity and positive feedback is a much more effective way to generate wider status effects. This stimulates the brain’s reward centres and creates a positive environment for the brain.When we feel our own sense of status being threatened, we are less likely to respond in a way that helps the situation, we are more likely to ‘cherry pick’ pieces of information being sent by the other person and therefore.

Strategy for Improvement: We are more cued for ‘threat’ than ‘reward’ situations in the workplace. Take time to notice whether you are feeling slightly more threatened by someone’s behaviour and how that’s impact your sense of self. Status is a significant driver of workplace behaviour. You may just be encountering someone else’s extreme status threat response that’s unfortunately taking it out on you.

2. Certainty

Asking for clarity around tasks, asking for clarity around people and how people communicate is more important than you probably realise. In familiar situations the brain uses fewer resources than in unfamiliar situations. This means that in unfamiliar situations the brain will be strained, it will be uncomfortable. In familiar situations where the outcomes are predictable the reward system will be activated and a feeling of security will be generated. When we are asked to complete tasks or be involved in situations where we don’t have certainty about process or what the persons expects from us, it increases our stress levels dramatically and impairs our ability to be able to make effective balanced decisions.

Strategy for Improvement: Ask direct questions about expectations.  Don’t try and ‘fill in the gaps’ with your imagination.  If you are engaging in a task that someone has asked you to do and you don’t feel you have clarity, keep asking questions until you do.  When we find ourselves ‘reading meaning’ into situations, it may be time to directly ask what was meant, as often its meaning is not what we thought it was.  We spend 40% of our time predicting the future and most of the time we are wrong.

3. Autonomy

‘I have no control over my world.’ ‘I wish they would let me get my job done the way I want to do it, it would be so much better.’

Our ability to get things done through others is critical in the workplace.  Our need to feel safe in our abilities to get our job done competently without overt interference enhances our productivity, our engagement, our effectiveness and our accuracy.  Lack of autonomy can be processed as a threat situation and hence will promote stress and its negative implications in the brain.  Interestingly just being promised more autonomy will activate the reward system in the brain.

Strategy for Improvement: Focus on what you can control in your world.  Taking the time to focus on what you do have control of in your world (either at work or outside of work) helps to build perspective and increase the sense of autonomy.

4. Relatedness

‘I just can’t relate to this person’.  ‘She/he makes no effort to understand my perspective, it’s all about them.’

The social wiring in our brains means that in daily life and in business alike, we form social groups and build relationships. These groups build mutual trust and form a barrier against the unknown. These feelings and the interpersonal bonding promote the production of oxytocin, the trust and bonding hormone, which increases the positive feeling of trust and stabilizes these relationships.

But what do we do when we don’t feel a sense of connection?

Strategy for Improvement: Engage in some ‘cognitive empathy’.  Too often when we try to engage in empathy we are actually engaging in misplaced sympathy (or what we’d do if WE were them).  Cognitive empathy is about our ability to really try to be in that person’s shoes and engage with that person’s perspective.  A difficult and tricky thing when they might be yelling or narky at us.  By engaging in cognitive empathy which is about MAKING yourself look at it from their perspective, it can engage the flow of oxytocin.

5. Fairness

‘I can’t believe he just gave me that job to do; I can’t believe she spoke to me that way.’

Unfairness stimulates a strong emotional reaction in the brain, an automatic defence mechanism. This emotional reaction can for example be to shut down, with punishment of the source of the unfairness. This activates the reward centre in the brain and counteracts the negative impact of unfairness. This feeling of unfairness can unintentionally be promoted in organisations through unclear and in-transparent communication.  When we experience a strong unfairness threat (and irrational behaviour in others can cause that), we can quite often respond in a way that either exacerbates the situation or attempts to avoid the threat. Either are short-term fixes.

Strategy for Improvement: Label and reappraise:  How am I actually feeling in this incident?  What impact is it having on my ability to be rational in response?  How long is it likely to last and what’s another, more constructive way for me to react to it?


It’s all about gaining perspective

Photo: Libertine London

Photo: Libertine London


The essence of this model helps us to feel more energised, more trusting of colleagues, more engaged in our workplace and overall have a better understanding of why people do what they do.  The essence of this model is around gaining perspective. Negativity, irrational behaviour and conflict or however we wish to label it isn’t just something that makes our jobs uncomfortable from time to time, it is a real cost to business in the emotional toll it takes among staff morale. More compellingly, it translates to lost time  due to a lack of engagement leading to lower productivity, increased time spent by human resources or the practice manager having to deal with issues, and of course, the ever increasing litigious nature of our culture.

Finally, focus on your own and others SCARF triggers.  That person’s irrational reaction may be due to an unwitting status threat they experienced from another source that is currently being transferred to us.  We have the power and the choice to respond and react however we choose.  Make it proactive. Make it constructive.  And make it kind to your brain.


This article was first published in August 2013 in Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers, the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association blog.