As pressures mount and resources dwindle, delivering outstanding healthcare hinges largely on your ability to bring out the best in each member of your team. Easier said than done, of course. Though optimizing team performance can seem daunting, research on the neuroscience of workplace dynamics can help.

The application of neuroscientific findings to leadership development is called neuroleadership.

Psychological safety as the bedrock of high performance

For starters, psychological research into workplace efficacy from Harvard Business School found that a sense of psychological safety is paramount to engaging workers and reducing employee turnover — even more so than compensation. 

Neurologically, when employees do not feel psychologically safe, the brain’s amygdala activates and fight-or-flight mode engages. This causes mental processes to degrade from the prefrontal cortex’s complex thought processing (or thrive mode) in exchange for the amygdala’s survival mode. 

David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and advisor to more than 50% of the Fortune 100, found an inverse relationship between threat response and IQ. “People literally become less intelligent, not just less engaged, but actually less intelligent when they’re feeling very anxious.”

Even still, McKinsey found that most leaders do not demonstrate traits that encourage a psychologically safe work environment. Neuroleadership can help you develop a culture based on neuroscience to bring out the best in each of your teammates.

Mitigating threats: 5 domains of neurological experience

Rock’s SCARF model summarizes neuroscientific findings in five key domains of social experience that impact workplace performance and morale. Consider how these might apply to your team or across your organization, particularly if you are initiating or implementing change. Where might workers feel triggered?

  1. Status: Perceived importance in relation to others. Perceiving a potential reduction in social status can generate a strong negative response, similar to physical pain or injury. (More on that shortly.)
  2. Certainty: Our brains are constantly trying to predict the near future. Uncertainty generates an “error” response and causes stress. Bits of certainty help build trust and confidence in a leader,  team and organization.  
  3. Autonomy: Choice and a sense of control. When a team member is able to make choices about how work is accomplished, this fosters a feeling of being more in control and reduces anxiety stemming from general ambiguity.
  4. Relatedness: A sense of belonging. Sharing information with others and engaging them in developing and implementing shared goals helps foster trust and collaboration within the team. 
  5. Fairness: Perception of fair treatment among team members. Seemingly unfair exchanges are perceived as threats. Communication and transparency can positively impact those perceptions.

The SCARF domains of social interaction also have neurological consequences that impact you physically. According to fMRI research by Naomi Eisenberger, the brain processes social loss just like a physical injury. We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it,” and yet when it comes to the pain of a social loss, this is a common response. 

“We intuitively believe social and physical pain are radically different types of experiences,” said Eisenberger. “Yet the way our brains treat them suggests they are more similar than we imagine.”

As a leader, when you can identify a teammate who is encountering social threats within the SCARF domains and help them to feel psychologically safe, that person’s brain receives a reward signal that triggers the release of dopamine and oxytocin. This helps put the teammate in a “toward” state, more likely to be open to change.

Whatever your goals are to improve your organization, consider applications of neuroleadership to help optimize your team for the best possible outcomes. The SCARF model, in particular, has been a game-changer for many leaders with whom I coach. When they use the framework as a proactive tool to think through changes they are planning, it helps them to more thoughtfully accelerate change and achieve better outcomes. 

Kathy Gibala
About the author

Kathy Gibala is a sought-after executive leadership coach with more than 25 years of healthcare industry experience and over 15 years as a coach. She is honored to serve as a trusted partner and change catalyst to healthcare executives across the US to raise the bar on their leadership, build high-performing teams, and accelerate transformative change. Kathy incorporates neuroscience-based coaching techniques to help healthcare leaders expand their impact and reach their fullest potential.
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