Dan Beverly

Navigating professional interactions

As a leader, we’re always looking to maximise our capacity to influence, collaborate, engage and inspire. And since the brain treats the work environment first and foremost as a social system, it’s useful to understand the social domains that most significantly drive behaviour.

Recent research into the brain has highlighted 5 social domains that activate the same reward/threat circuitry as that of physical reward/threat. Or to put it another way: social reward and social threat can be considered a primary need.

Understanding the brain’s preoccupation with these 5 social domains – and adjusting your leadership style to suit – will help you get the best from those around you.

1. Status

Status refers to our relative importance within a group. And our brain, which is continually monitoring our status at all times, is acutely aware of it. To the brain, status is an extremely important resource – and so a key driver of behaviour.

In the workplace, performance reviews and giving feedback (especially negative feedback) are perennial challenges exactly because the brain registers a threat to status. Just the words “can I give you some feedback” will knot the stomach – a threat response.

So what can we do? Start by asking your reviewee to give feedback on themselves. Doing this elevates a person’s status – even when the feedback they give themselves is negative!

2. Certainty

The brain is a prediction machine, continually mapping past experience to present and future. And so certainty – the ability to predict the future – is a key driver for the brain. And when we experience ambiguity (of any kind), it generates a threat response.

The need for certainty is easily forgotten in the workplace. For example, we might casually ask to see someone in our office for some innocuous discussion. But without setting clear expectations with that person, we’ve reduced their certainty and left them in a threat state. Until we have that meeting, we can expect their productivity and effectiveness to be impaired.

A key part of any leader’s role is the continual management of change, large and small. In such times of change, make certainty a central theme in your leadership style – to move people towards a reward state.

3. Autonomy

Autonomy is the experience of having choice; the sense of some control over events.

In the workplace, when we micromanage and dictate, there is no autonomy, no choice – and frustration, anger and lack of commitment will likely result. Conversely, when we seek input and opinion, and offer options and leeway, we engender reward state emotions like motivation and commitment.

Staff need to feel like they have choices – even when there is effectively no choice.

4. Relatedness

Relatedness is our sense of safety with others. Of friend (trust, connection, “same as us”) or foe (distrust, threat, “not same as us”). And whilst our brain defaults to “foe”, that threat response can be quickly diffused with a handshake, a conversation or a personal share.

In the workplace, relatedness has many implications, particularly in the times of such prevalent cross-cultural working, or remote and virtual team-working. In these circumstance, we need actively to seek-out common ground to build the necessary bonds. Else we are most likely to create a sense of “outside of our group”.

5. Fairness

Fairness is about equitable exchange and just treatment. The brain science says: a perceived fair exchange activates the reward circuitry; whilst a perceived unfair exchange activates a threat response.

Since the human brain is bias towards its threat state, it’s very important for leaders to be crystal-clear about treating staff fairly; and to be very open, obvious and transparent in that intention.

Minimising threat, maximising reward

As leaders, many of us unintentionally violate one or many of the 5 social domains that drive behaviour in our staff. And when we do that, we move them towards a threat state – and so limit their capacity to do good work.

To keep our people motivated, committed, effective and engaged:

  • Ask them for self-feedback.
  • Set clear expectations.
  • Let them make decisions.
  • Connect on a human level.
  • Be transparent.

Do this, and we move ourselves and others towards that maximise reward state – what we might otherwise call “engagement” – and we all become more effective as a result.


  • The SCARF Model is the work of David Rock, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute. For more on his SCARF Model, you might like to read: “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others” (David Rock, NeuroLeadership Journal No.1, 2008).
Dan Beverly

Dan Beverly is a leadership and performance coach helping high-calibre, high-performing professional women embrace the pivotal career moments.

To work with Dan, go online to book your complimentary “Session Zero” – and start capitalising on your pivotal career moment, today.