Trust and the brain

David Rock and Matthew Lieberman have been studying the functioning of the brain and have some profound ideas that we can use in building trusting relationships with people on our teams. As Rock states, “the human brain is a social organ. Its physiological and neurological reactions are directly and profoundly shaped by social interaction.” (

In other words, the people on your team – and you – respond to social and interpersonal interactions at the same intensity level as when we physically interact with our environment. Like when you hit your thumb with a hammer, jump into a cold lake or enjoy a scrumptious dessert!hammer-on-thumb That helps explain why small actions by you, as the leader, can lead to significant, and often surprising, personal reactions by members of your team. The social interactions you create can directly, almost biologically, build trust or break down trust at work. And we have learned from this work is that people react much stronger to perceived social threats than we do to perceived social rewards.

To help leaders navigate this social minefield at work, Rock has defined five social domains (SCARF) that can be used to help build trust. Understanding the different threats and taking action to reduce the perception of a threat from your language or your behaviors will lead to enhanced social interactions and stronger trust. The five domains that trigger a threat response in social settings are:

Status – an individual’s self-perceived importance in relation to others.

Certainty – the degree to which an individual is able to predict the future.

Autonomy – perception regarding their sense of control over events.

Relatedness – perception of safety with others, of being associated with an in-group rather than an out-group.

Fairness – perception of fair exchanges between an individual and other people and/or the organization.

In my work with new leaders they are often surprised at the reactions of past colleagues who they now supervise. Understanding the “hard-wired” brain response to a change in status helps them better understand the reaction and identify new ways of interacting that minimize the threat and re-establish trust.

Yes, “my brain made me do it” may be true but by using SCARF, leaders can take action to build trust.

Todd Thorsgaard


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