Develop a culture of trust

According to many in the neuroscience field including the NeuroLeadership Institute, our brains sometimes fool us into thinking we are in a high threat (life or death) situation for the least likely reasons.

For instance, I was asked to speak in front of a cadre of coaches many of whom were more experienced than I. To show what I had learned, I had to “teach” something many of them already knew very well.  Even though it was a friendly and supportive crowd, as soon as I got out of my chair, my mouth went dry, I began to sweat and my head was in a fog.  It was like I was outside my body and had little to no control.

Have you ever felt like this?

I fumbled through my 5-minute presentation, not remembering exactly what I said.  The feedback was kind but I knew I could have done much better. After all, I had practiced dozens of times and knew how it should have gone. Here is why it didn’t:

My brain put me in a threat state.  It was priming the rest of me for “fight, flight or freeze”.  My brain was doing what all brains do thousands of times/second.  It was monitoring my internal and external environment to assess threats and rewards.  When the brain believes there is a threat, it immediately releases “survival” chemicals.  When it senses a reward, it releases different chemicals that make us feel happy and/or content  These chemical releases help to remind us when it is okay to experience something and when it is safer to avoid it.

My story is not an unusual example.  Most situations are less dramatic but nevertheless, it happens quite often.  David Rock, Founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, in his book, Your Brain at Work, provides a detailed explanation of why this is.  He has created an acronym called SCARF to highlight the main states that can be positively or negatively affected by our brain’s threat assessment mechanisms.  It goes as follows:

  • Status – Less than or better than others – Am I valued, does my opinion matter
  • Certainty – Ability to predict outcomes – Need for clarity and to predict what is going to happen next. Am I clear on the agenda of the current conversation/interaction?
  • Autonomy – Sense of Control.  Do I have the ability to produce results I am accountable for?
  • Relatedness – In-Group or Out-Group. Friend or Foe. Am I trusted and to what degree?  If I am in the outgroup, I may resist different and new perspectives. I am not invested.  If I am in the Ingroup where I feel liked, known and trusted, I have higher productivity and interactivity.
  • Fairness – Perception of fair exchange.  Am I getting the same as others? What are the rules of this relationship?SCARF


Rock shares some useful examples of what you can do to move yourself and your team toward the “Reward State” which will develop a culture of trust over time.  As you get better at this, you will notice more engagement, creativity, and productivity from yourself and your team.

One suggestion to support your team members at your next weekly meeting is to make sure that everyone is heard especially when meeting on a significant matter.  According to the Google’s Teamwork study, making sure that everyone is heard an equal amount of time during the meeting will generate the best ideas, a feeling of safety and a better team dynamic.  Some people are natural contributors and others need a little encouragement as they are introverted or may have had a memorably bad experience in the past.  It is the job of the leader to make sure everyone gets equal time.  I will share another practical example in my next post – “Poker Chips and Paper Clips”.

The leader’s job is to assemble the best teams and help them to continue to improve together as a unit as well as individuals.    With this understanding of how our brains can sometimes work against us, you can help to create a more empathetic, collegial and productive place to work.  Give it a try!

Here is a short video from Rock talking in more depth about his SCARF model.

Lastly, please join me at my upcoming workshop on April 12 to learn more about how to improve your team and team alignment. Details below.

Bill – Certified Scaling Up Coach

Be Exceptional!


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“Like many good coaches, Bill knows that buy-in, follow through and confidence are enhanced when ideas and priorities are generated from within the organization. Bill will motivate and guide you to do the work and make progress producing alignment and results” – Global Educators’ Office of the President


Published by Bill Flynn

Gazelles Member Advisor and early stage startup specialist with a proven track record with 16 Boston-based startups (9 to date with 5 successful outcomes, advisor to 7 others); SMB to Fortune 500 companies. 20+ years of Senior Sales, Marketing and GM experience in industries including mobile advertising, security, digital advertising, e-commerce and IT. Core Competencies: Player/Coach, Metrics-driven, Execution-based philosophy, Life-long learner

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