How a good leader resolves conflict.

You will never be a leader until you’ve had to deal with conflict. It’s just part of the job, no matter how good a team is, or how great a leader you are, there will always be conflict. Because we are human. The difference, however, between a good leader and an average ( I want to say, bad leader) is the way in which we deal with said conflict when it arises.

In my experience, having a clear-cut action plan for conflict is a great start. But an even better secret weapon, is to be mindful throughout the process. And a great tool for this, particularly in resolving conflict, is referring to the SCARF theory.

David Rock is a well-known leadership coach, who for years has been exploring the use of neuroscience for management, coaching, leadership and even more general life skills. In 2009 Rock published a sort-of manual for management titled, Managing with the Brain in Mind which is a phenomenal guidebook to neuro-leadership.

A year earlier he introduced the SCARF model in a paper he subtitled, “a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.” The SCARF paper was published in the first issue of the Neuroscience Journal which, not so coincidentally, was cofounded by Rock.

So, what the rock is SCARF? And how can it help you?

The SCARF theory references and works around five areas of human social experiences; Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

David Rock’s theory was that these five areas activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain.

For example, according to Neuroscience, a perceived threat to one’s status stimulates similar brain activity (and responses) to a threat to one’s life. And, on the other end of the scale, a perceived increase in fairness can stimulate a reward circuitry similar to the brain activity buzzed up when you receive money.

Sounds crazy hey? Well it’s not, it’s science.

And a leader does well when they are keeping in check of these five social-scientific domains. Particularly when dealing with conflict.

Now, understanding the neuroscience behind the theory, when we break down the elements of SCARF even further and relate them to our team, we start to see how they might have a hand in conflict resolution;

Status – our relative importance relating to team members.
Certainty – our ability to know what is happening.
Autonomy – our sense of control over what is happening.
Relatedness – how safe we feel with team members.
Fairness – how fair we perceive the exchanges between people in our team.

Just add dash of the similar neuroscientific pathways of threat or reward and you can see where things might go a little pear-shaped.

To avoid conflict, is better than conflict resolution. And you can use the SCARF model and its principles to set the standard before conflict occurs. Take each of the five categories and eliminate threats as well as maximising awards to balance out conflict risks.

For instance, with Status, you can eliminate threats to someone’s status by managing feedback correctly. Instead of giving bad feedback, offer up the opportunity for the person to evaluate their own performance, then add your own constructive feedback to help them understand what need to be fixed without threatening their position. On the other end of the scale, maximise reward by offering up regular praise. Secure their own perception of their status, get them involved in new projects and their skills whenever possible. Careful not to over promote but find areas they’re working well in and acknowledge them.

As a leader, if you’re aware of these the SCARF model and can apply these ‘threat and reward’ principles to each of the five areas, you should be able handle most conflict. Try it, set yourself a task to become SCARF savvy!


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