Don’t step on my scarf

Imagine yourself trying to remove a CD from its plastic wrapper. You just cut your nails and there are no scissors nearby. So almost a mission impossible. Then someone comes to you, blurts “let me”, takes the CD away from your hands and opens it. Problem solved, CD removed from its evil wrapping,  everything is fine, right? If you are like most people, probably not. You feel irritated.

I’m going to tell you why.

To put it short, in addition to scanning the environment for physical dangers, our brain is also constantly observing the social environment around us. A “social threat” creates same kind of fight-or-flee response as a physical threat. I guess this is because our ancestors had not only to dodge the attacking mammoths but also to get along with the tribe. And getting along with the tribe requires reacting to social threats.

These social threats (and rewards), can be divided into the following domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness. SCARF. This stuff is being handled by the limbic system, a.k.a. the lizard brain, so we can’t turn this off.

Status is our relative importance in a group. Pecking order, if you like. Our brain is constantly figuring out what is our status in any human interaction. Status can be threatened easily when giving instructions or advice too easily, or hinting that someone is ineffective in his task.

Most arguments start when someone hurts one’s status, which creates a fight or flee response. Especially in internet forums it’s so easy to fight that the result will nearly always be a battle for status.

Our brain likes to know what happens next. It hates uncertainty. We don’t like going to a meeting without an agenda, not just because it might be waste of time, but because we don’t know what is going to happen.

One of the good sides of Scrum is that it brings a lot of certainty to developers’ heads. There are clear roles, meetings have a clear purpose and sprints are protected from sudden functional requirements. (Sidenote: not going into detailed analysis of school book Scrum and its problems here.)

We like to be in control, or at least have an illusion of it. Classic example of threatening autonomy is micro-managing — telling people what to do instead of letting them decide themselves what to do.

If you’re helping a co-worker, try not to threat his autonomy. Instead of intruding by saying “let me help”, ask “do you need help?” or “You seem frustrated, do you want to talk?”. This way your co-worker gets to choose if he wants help or not, and his autonomy isn’t hurt.

This is our perceived feeling of whether we’re “out” or “in” the group — sense of belonging. I think this is why we feel so bad if someone doesn’t get our joke. Or just doesn’t understand what you’re saying.  In a way you feel that you’re out of that mini-group, and this causes threat to relatedness.

Our brain likes fairness. Sense of unfairness activates the same part in brain as when we feel physically disgusted. If your co-worker gets “unfair” promotion, you feel like you’ve eaten spoiled food. Yuck.

Being aware of this stuff helps you understand the situations where you get irritated and upset. And more importantly, you can do your best to avoid stepping on someone else’s scarf. And if you happen to be a Scrum Master, you should look after your team scarf.

And here’s perhaps the most important part: if any one of those five areas is threatened, your capability to think reduces significantly. Your prefrontal cortex gets second priority because the limbic system is handling with primitive threats.  There was a study where two groups had to solve a labyrinth, group A had just the labyrinth in their papers, group B had the same labyrinth, but in addition a picture of a spider in the corner of the paper. Group B solved the labyrinth slower, because just the picture of a spider triggered a threat in their limbic system, which hindered their thinking.

If you’re interested, here’s the scientific article about SCARF.  For example I didn’t cover any of the reward side of the SCARF. And I have to mention that this post was greatly inspired by this great two day course. It’s worth the money.

PS. If you read this far, you probably can guess what irritated you when opening the CD wrapper —  most likely your autonomy was hurt, maybe even status as well.

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