How we respond or react to something often indicates a need that is either being or not being met. This is sometimes called Stimulus-Response theory.
We may get triggered by something someone is doing or saying (a stimulus) which reminds us consciously or unconsciously of something (pleasant or painful, positive or negative) leading to our response. These triggers will have their origins in the past and sometimes in growing up as children.
Negative triggers can often result in a negative emotional reaction and behaviour and the opposite also applies. Managers and leaders, as part of their people management role, may seek to develop a knowledge and understanding of their employees’ needs and triggers. This is part of effectively managing and motivating people to take the action required to fulfil the expectations of their role.
Needs have been created as they have served you well at some point in your life. An example could be where a sense of success in your life is derived by the title of your job or your role or the perceived level of power or influence that gives you. As you progress in life, if you feel that people are going to remove that title, power or influence, then you may react emotionally and negatively to that situation as it gives rise to a feeling that your success is being taken away. If we don’t consciously acknowledge the need that is triggering the emotional reaction, we can become enslaved to it and dig our heels in and become closed to new opportunities. This is part of what can be noticed when people experience a resistance to change, when there is a perception that needs are not going to be met and a certain reaction is therefore triggered. However, if we look at the need, rationally and truthfully, we may then be able to free ourselves to see life and situations more objectively. It also enables us to choose better responses and behaviours.
During times of change, complexity, uncertainty or turbulence, we can become ever more sensitive to these needs and it is a lack of attention to needs and triggers that can result in many change initiatives failing.
Examples of Needs/Emotional Triggers
To be liked
To be understood
To be needed
To be in control
To be right
To make a difference
To be valued
To be treated fairly
To Feel worthwhile
To be heard
To be safe
The SCARF model offers a great vehicle to access and enhance our understanding of peoples’ values and needs and can shed light on what is sitting underneath someone’s behaviour or reaction in certain situations. This model was developed by David Rock and describes how five key areas influence our behaviour in social situations. These concepts can also be very easily viewed in an organisational context to help us understand what drives behaviour and what enables or hinders change.
Neuroscience reinforces this model which identifies key criteria that help the brain understand whether or not there is a threat or reward to be had. Research shows that threats to any concerns can trigger physiological responses in a similar way that physical threats do.
Examples of this are:
If we feel ostracised, neural responses can activate in a similar way as if we were feeling hunger.
If we feel a threat to our status, this can elevate levels of cortisol, which can impact our sleep patterns and make us feel anxious.
We also have two distinct forms of motivation: Away factors (threats) and Toward factors (rewards). Sometimes we are motivated by away factors, for example “I don’t want to lose my job” and sometimes we are motivated by toward factors: “I want to get better at client presentations”.
Threats can lead to:
Reduced working memory
Narrower field of view
Generalising of threat
Loss of focus
Rewards can lead to:
Greater cognitive resources
Increased ideas for action
Fewer perceptual errors
A wider field of view
As a leader of people, the forward focused, reward mechanism is one that will bring the best results. A leader can focus on supporting people to be forward-focused in different ways. Looking at the SCARF model a leader could:
Status – provide acknowledgement and support to the individual or team, affirm their value and help them understand where they can get more support for ideas and strategies.
Certainty – support people to develop clearer strategies and action plans for changes they wish or need to make by helping them to break down complex processes into smaller, more understandable chunks. Provide clarity of direction and expectations of what is required on a shorter-term basis. This can create a sense of safety and increased certainty, even when the wider environment is uncertain and less clear.
Autonomy – don’t take away people’s sense of autonomy by always telling or suggesting actions going forward. Micromanagement is the biggest threat to autonomy. Elicit and encourage self-designed actions and ideas, delegate and empower.
Relatedness – build rapport with your colleagues and teams to enable them to feel safe and therefore explore more and do more. Invite people to consider how they can seek support from others toward the pursuit of their goals and actions. Meet the threat of isolation with buddy and networking systems and encourage connection and sharing.
Fairness – when people think that something is unfair, it can trigger the part of the brain that is linked to disgust which can lead to a powerful threat response. This can be mitigated by being as open and honest as possible. A sense of individual and team fairness can also be encouraged through the co-creation of goals, objectives and ways of working.
What’s also interesting is that the passage of time can lead to individual needs, motivators and triggers becoming an increasing part of the “DNA” of an organisation, informing what could be called the organisational or institutional “memory” and thereby the culture.
For example, it may be noticeable that an organisation’s culture has developed in such a way that status is regarded as highly important and that this need for status has led to a hierarchical organisational structure. There may be threat-based motivational drivers resulting in employees striving to get more status and move up in the hierarchy. If the status lies with the few, this could lead to a sense that autonomy is lacking for the many. Another example could be where organisational changes over time have resulted in a high percentage of employees working remotely. Remote employees could feel isolated and disconnected, resulting with a feeling of status and relatedness being lost which could trigger a sense of unfairness. These and many other possible scenarios are examples of how we could use the SCARF model as a lens through which to view organisational culture and inquire if that culture is one that we want and is one which will enable the organisation to reach its goals and mission… or not.
Coaching, coaching-related activities and the use of coaching skills by managers and leaders offer organisations the opportunity to have powerful conversations that inquire about and uncover underlying needs and triggers. In this way, we can better understand what is really driving and fuelLing the culture within the organisation and consider if this is truly the culture we want and need to be successful. We can then continue to use coaching and the lenses offered by this model to invite conversations which begin a process of aligning needs, motivations and behaviour so that what we think, feel and do are aligned and congruent, not just within ourselves but also with the values of the organisation. At the same time, when looking at the organisational values we can use coaching to explore the values that we really want to uphold—what kind of organisation do we want to be and belong to?
Tracy Sinclair has more than 20 years' experience in leadership development, and she currently works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability as a core leadership competence. Tracy also specialises in working with a wide range of organisations to support the development of coaching cultures.
A Professional Certified Coach (PCC), Tracy is dedicated to the development of the coaching profession and the coaching community. She works as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, and she has served on the International Coaching Federation Global Board of Directors since 2016, in a variety of positions including Treasurer, Global Chair and currently serves as Co-Chair and Director at Large on the International Coaching Federation Global Enterprise Board.